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‘The Splendid and the Vile’ a new look at Churchill and the Blitz

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“Oh great,” you groan. “Another book about Winston Churchill. Just what the world needs.”

I’ll concede that those feelings are understandable. We’ve all been through the whole finest hour thing more times than we can count; it’s a story that anyone with any interest in history has at least a passing knowledge of. Untold reams of paper and gallons of ink have been devoted to the life and work of the noted statesman; while no one can argue Churchill’s historical significance, it’s also easy to assume that everything that needed saying has already been said.

All true, yes. But conversely – Erik Larson hadn’t yet said his piece. Until now.

The bestselling historian – author of acclaimed works such as “Thunderstruck,” “Dead Wake” and “The Devil in the White City” – has turned his narrative gifts and powers of insight onto the Prime Minister with “The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz” (Crown, $32). Far from the dusty doorstop of a book you might expect, “The Splendid and the Vile” is an example of Larson at his best.

Meticulously, exhaustively researched and told with Larson’s usual deftness of prose, this account of Churchill’s first year – from his being named prime minister on May 10, 1940 up through April of 1941 – is an intense close-read of the man’s life. It’s an almost day-by-day accounting of how that first year was spent, both through Churchill himself and through those closest to him – his staff, his friends and his family.

Thanks to Larson’s deep and thorough dive, he (and hence we) are privy to a wealth of first-hand accounts of what it was like in the room with Churchill – the bombast, the charisma, the idiosyncrasies – all of it. People like Lord Beaverbrook, the minister of air production, and Churchill’s prime science adviser Frederick Lindemann, for instance. His private secretary and his bodyguard. These men knew that they were in the presence of history, and that they themselves were participants; the extent of correspondence and personal journals was significant.

And his family, his wife Clementine and their children. Larson incorporates their perspectives as well, illustrating that Churchill’s imperiousness wasn’t always the sort of thing that was easily left at the office, as it were. His children particularly get more attention than usual – again, an unexpected and welcome perspective.

“The Splendid and the Vile” is also a vivid and compelling look at the realities of the Blitz and the hard choices Churchill and his compatriots had to make in order to hold off the looming German threat. That campaign is explored not just through the prime minister and other luminaries, but via the accounts of ordinary Brits, the folks who spent every day keeping calm and carrying on even though the sky could fill with bombs at almost any moment.

The book hits the usual high points too, of course, the moments with which we’re all familiar thanks to Churchill’s accepted place in the larger cultural firmament, but they don’t receive the same sort of focus that they have in other past works – books, movies, etc. Instead, it is the smaller moments, the everyday routines and the quirks – the basic living of life – that carry the day. And that’s a good thing.

It’s almost a cliché to say that a nonfiction work “reads like a novel,” but clichés are clichés for a reason. Larson’s aptitude for quality storytelling is what sets him apart and makes his work so accessible – the facts are right and the research is thorough, but they work in service to the narrative rather than despite it. The result is a fascinating and electrifying read that belies its 600-plus page count; Larson hits the ground running and pulls you along. It’s not often you come across a book this big that practically demands to be read this fast.

Look, you know how this story ends. At least, I hope you do. But that doesn’t mean we should stop listening to it. Particularly when you have someone this talented willing to keep telling it.

By casting a wider net and adding the context provided by those captured in the man’s orbit, Larson has provided a valuable and worthwhile addition to the Churchillian canon. “The Splendid and the Vile” is a masterful plunge into the character of a truly historic figure, one possessed of all the propulsive power of great fiction and driven by the honesty and pathos of fact.

Last modified on Tuesday, 03 March 2020 07:53

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