Sunday, January 10, 2021

Review: The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson

by Erik Larson
Release Date: February 25th 2020
2020 Crown
Kindle Edition; 464 Pages
ISBN: 978-0385348713
Genre: Non-Fiction / Historical
Source: Review copy from publisher

4.5 / 5 Stars

On Winston Churchill's first day as prime minister, Adolf Hitler invaded Holland and Belgium. Poland and Czechoslovakia had already fallen, and the Dunkirk evacuation was just two weeks away. For the next twelve months, Hitler would wage a relentless bombing campaign, killing 45,000 Britons. It was up to Churchill to hold his country together and persuade President Franklin Roosevelt that Britain was a worthy ally--and willing to fight to the end.
My Thoughts
The Splendid and the Vile was the perfect book to read during a pandemic.  During the Blitz, the British people endured day after day of unrelenting bombing that killed tens of thousands of people and left a like numbered of peopled maimed and injured.  How were they able to endure such a thing and face it with courage and stoicism? Ever since I first learned of the Blitz at the tender age of nine years old, one of the questions I have always wondered was: How were the people able to go on day by day with their daily lives while bombs obliterated their cities, destroyed their food sources, and killed their loved ones? Larson provides a poignant look at those days and attempts to answer some of those questions in this book by focusing on the human aspect behind the government and the throne.
First of all, much credit has been given to Churchill and his war cabinet, and despite the things that didn't go quite so well, there is no doubt that his courage, his optimism, and his eloquent speeches gave his people hope during such dark days.  I have listened to some of his speeches many times and I am in awe of what he was able to do and how he was able to inspire hope in people.  I think part of it had to do with the fact that he was never afraid to tell his people the truth, but with that truth always came optimism and hope and the conviction that his people would succeed in the end.  Because he believed it, his people did, and they never gave up, despite Hitler's frustration otherwise.  
What I really enjoyed in this book was the portrayal of Churchill's idiosyncrasies and his flaws.  Larson made this larger than life figure human, and I really enjoyed that aspect of this book, even laughing out loud a couple of times at some of the uncomfortable scenarios in which his advisors found themselves. I can't imagine anything more uncomfortable than having to advise your prime minister and finding him stark naked in his room, smoking a cigar, while you have to give him news.  And Churchill was known for doing work in his bathtub and spending long hours in there for rest and relaxation.  
The story follows Churchill's first year in office, through the Blitz, portraying his desperate plea for Roosevelt's aid against Germany, especially after France fell in June 1940.  Larson, using extensive research through personal journals, archival notes, documents, intelligence documents, diaries, and other primary and secondary sources, gave the reader an inside look at his daily life, both personal and public, as well as his family and the people who surrounded him on a daily basis.  The stories of his daughter Mary (which I personally loved), his wife Clementine, his daughter-in-law Pamela, his personal assistant Colville, and others, provided a more personal look at the events during this time period.  While I have read a lot of biographies and non-fiction books about this time period, they can be a bit dry and focus so much on the political nature of this time period, while Larson really focused on the human interest stories and how the daily bombings affected people's lives.  Yes, the subject matter can be grim as they were in the middle of a war and desperate, so I really appreciated those stories that demonstrated the courage it took to survive almost two years of struggling alone in a desperate situation.
The Splendid and the Vile was a wonderfully researched book about the struggles Churchill faced during his first year at PM during World War II and the unflinching courage he took to face Hitler and encourage his people to never give up during such desperate times.  I loved how the author told the story from the perspective of those around him, never flinching from the realities of what happened, but showing the human interest stories that existed that really made this time period come alive.  I really savoured each moment; Larson certainly has a gift for making history seem alive and I could picture everything in my head so easily.  Do I think the book has too many details and should be edited more to get rid of those details?  Hell no, it is those details which make this book so great to read and Larson truly has a gift for making you empathize with what was happening rather than just writing descriptions about the events.  I have an extensive knowledge about the war (I teach it) and enjoyed this book tremendously.  I highly recommend it to anyone who has an interest in Churchill and the Blitz.  



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