Monday, May 18, 2020
Read by John Lee
Published February 2020 by Crown Publishing Group
Source: audiobook checked out from my local library
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.
In The Splendid and the Vile, Erik Larson shows, in cinematic detail, how Churchill taught the British people “the art of being fearless.” It is a story of political brinkmanship, but it’s also an intimate domestic drama, set against the backdrop of Churchill’s prime-ministerial country home, Chequers; his wartime retreat, Ditchley, where he and his entourage go when the moon is brightest and the bombing threat is highest; and of course 10 Downing Street in London. Drawing on diaries, original archival documents, and once-secret intelligence reports—some released only recently—Larson provides a new lens on London’s darkest year through the day-to-day experience of Churchill and his family: his wife, Clementine; their youngest daughter, Mary, who chafes against her parents’ wartime protectiveness; their son, Randolph, and his beautiful, unhappy wife, Pamela; Pamela’s illicit lover, a dashing American emissary; and the advisers in Churchill’s “Secret Circle,” to whom he turns in the hardest moments.
The Splendid and the Vile takes readers out of today’s political dysfunction and back to a time of true leadership, when, in the face of unrelenting horror, Churchill’s eloquence, courage, and perseverance bound a country, and a family, together.
This is essentially the story of Winston Churchill's first year as Great Britain's prime minister, just as World War II really began to take off and Hitler set his sites on England. In a normal life, at a normal time, one year might not amount to much. But this was not, obviously, a normal time. It's no surprise to find, in listening to this book, that Winston Churchill was the right man for Great Britain in a time of war. Despite almost certain destruction (and let's be honest, if the United States had not gotten into the war, Great Britain would almost certainly have fallen), Churchill managed to keep his nation's spirits high. He did it in no small part by being astonishingly calm throughout the bombing of London, often refusing to leave 10 Downing Street during bombing raids. Churchill also seemed to have had an uncanny knowledge of how to get Franklin Roosevelt to step up and help, working behind the scenes to get what he needed long before the U. S. finally came to England's aid.
The Splendid and The Vile is not just a book about Churchill but also those who surrounded him, his family, his aids, the people who helped save England and also, to an extent, the German leaders. It being written by Larson, the book is exceedingly well researched and the stories of everyone involved are woven together so that readers can see the full picture of what Churchill was going through both as Prime Minister and husband and father. Larson does a tremendous job of making readers feel what it must have been like to have lived in England during the bombing and he doesn't spare readers the brutality those bombs wrought. It's not an easy read.
When I pick up a book by Larson, I know I'm going to learn things that you won't find in your history books unless you're a scholar of that time and place. For example, I had no idea that Rudolph Hess had flown a plane to England, believing he might be able to bring England to the negotiating table and thus avoid war on two fronts.
The book includes an epilogue detailing what became of most of the main players in the book. The audiobook also includes, as a bonus, a Christmas speech Churchill gave after the war. I imagine the print book includes photos and I do love photos in history books. But if I'd picked it up in print, I would have missed John Lee's remarkable reading of the book.