By Erik Larson. A saga told by intimate narrative of Churchill, family, and defiance during the Blitz.
Story: Lisa French
Erik Larson is a master of narrative non-fiction. His book, “The Splendid and the Vile,” details Winston Churchill’s first year as prime minister of Great Britain from May 1940 until the United States entered the war in December 1941.
Churchill, Britain’s top naval official, was chosen prime minister on May 10, 1940, amid widespread discontent with the current leader. He was not the obvious choice. He was intense, erratic, and even eccentric. But he had a reputation for personal courage. The author focuses on that courage and how Churchill skillfully leveraged it into a sustainable national courage against daunting opposition.
On Winston Churchill’s first day as prime minister, Hitler invaded Holland and Belgium and the Dunkirk evacuation was just two weeks away.
When France surrendered to the Germans in June 1940 the threat of a Nazi invasion of England became very real. Britain only remained to defeat the Nazis. Churchill declared they must and could succeed yet knew they needed the money and military might of the United States to do it.
The next great stressor came in September 1940 when the German Luftwaffe began relentlessly bombing London and other targets. They continued almost nightly for the next twelve months. Larson provides a vivid depiction of life during the Blitz conveying the omnipresent terror of it.
Churchill must devise a military strategy to defend England from the brutal aerial assaults, keep up morale among the British, clearly signal to Germany that they will simply “never surrender,” and would prevail. Plus, convince President Franklin Roosevelt to send help in time.
Larson’s talent as a superb storyteller includes detailing narratives of the immense and the mundane. Chapters depicting Churchill’s extraordinary war efforts alternate with personal family concerns — his debts, his youngest daughter’s maturing, and the misadventures of his profligate son Randolph. Daily life details of Londoners are mixed in with military strategy and events in London and Berlin. The diaries of his personal secretary detail Churchill’s weekend at home and various other locales.
“The Splendid and the Vile” is a history, a gripping novel and an entertaining read. Knowing how things turned out does not detract from the danger and the gallantry of Winston Churchill.