November 22, 2021

The Splendid and the Vile

 

Nonfiction - History
2020 Crown Publishing
Finished on November 16, 2021
Rating: 5/5 (Excellent)

Publisher's Blurb:

The #1 New York Times bestselling author of Dead Wake and The Devil in the White City delivers a startlingly fresh portrait of Winston Churchill and London during the Blitz.

On Winston Churchill's first day as prime minister, 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 (30,000 of them Londoners) and destroying two million homes. It was up to Churchill to hold the country together and persuade President Franklin Roosevelt that Britain was a worthy ally--that she was 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 brinksmanship but also an intimate domestic drama, set against the backdrop of Churchill's prime-ministerial country house, Chequers, and his wartime residence, Ditchley, where Churchill and his entourage go when the moon is brightest and the bombing threat is highest. Drawing on a wealth of untapped sources, including recently declassified files, intelligence reports, and personal diaries only now available, 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 daughters, Sarah, Diana, and the youngest, Mary, who chafes against her parents' wartime protectiveness; their son, Randolph, and his beautiful, unhappy wife, Pamela; her illicit lover, a dashing American emissary; and the cadre of close advisors who comprised Churchill's "Secret Circle," including his dangerously observant private secretary, John Colville; newspaper baron Lord Beaverbrook; and the Rasputin-like Federick Lindemann.

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, strategic brilliance, and perseverance bound a country, and a family, together.

The Splendid and the Vile may be my favorite book of 2021! Until now, I don't believe I have ever read such a compelling book of history. I've been a longtime fan of World War II narratives, but mostly in the form of historical fiction. I requested an ARC of Erik Larson's most recent publication in late 2019 and was happy to receive a copy from the publisher specifically to give to my husband since he's read almost everything written about Winston Churchill. Truthfully, I wasn't even sure if I would read the book since I wasn't exactly enamoured with Larson's previous works. I gave up on The Devil in the White City (although, to be fair, I was in the middle of it in 2005 when tragedy struck our family and I never found the desire to pick it up again), gave Dead Wake (which I listened to on audio) a 2/5 rating, and Isaac's Storm (which I read for last year's Nonfiction November challenge) a 3/5 rating. But my husband assured me that Larson's newest book is very good and that I'd probably like it since it's a subject about which I enjoy reading. So I added it to my stack for this year's Nonfiction November challenge

Wanting to read as many books as possible for this challenge, I was tempted to start the month with some shorter memoirs that I'd chosen and leave what I perceived as a weighty tome for later in the month. However, I changed my mind, trying not to be put off by the 500+ pages of text. I shouldn't have worried; I simply could not put it down! I was drawn in from the prologue and found the entire text (including the sources and acknowledgments, which I pored over, gleaning more historical tidbits that weren't included in the text) engaging and informative. The narrow focus of a specific period during the war (Churchill's first year as prime minister, from May 10, 1940 to May 10, 1941) made it all the more compelling and I never felt any detail or description of events unnecessary.

I enjoyed reading not only about Churchill's role as prime minister during the Blitz, but also the individual stories and reflections about key events by members of his family and staff, derived from their personal diaries and letters. Additionally, there are accounts from Mass-Observation diarists, as well as ordinary British citizens, which further increases the intimacy of the narrative. 
The perspective from the ground was equally stunning. One young man, Colin Perry, eighteen, was on his bicycle when the first wave passed overhead. "It as the most amazing, impressive, riveting sight," he wrote later. "Directly above me were literally hundreds of planes, Germans! The sky was full of them." The fighters stuck close, he recalled, "like bees around their queen."
Larson also includes specific details and remarks by Virginia Woolf, Ian Fleming and Graham Greene, adding to this reader's enjoyment.

I couldn't help but be reminded of the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001 as I read the following:
The day was warm and still, the sky blue above a rising haze. Temperatures by afternoon were in the nineties, odd for London. People thronged Hyde Park and lounged on chairs set out beside the Serpentine. Shoppers jammed the stores of Oxford Street and Piccadilly. The giant barrage of balloons overhead cast lumbering shadows on the streets below. After the August air raid when bombs first fell on London proper, the city had retreated back into a dream of invulnerability, punctuated now and then by false alerts whose once-terrifying novelty was muted by the failure of bombers to appear. The late-summer heat imparted an air of languid complacency. In the city's West End, theaters hosted twenty-four productions, among them the play Rebecca, adapted for the stage by Daphne du Maurier from her novel of the same name. Alfred Hitchcock's movie version, starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, was also playing in London, as were the films The Thin Man and the long-running Gaslight.

It was a fine day to spend in the cool green of the countryside. 

and

The dust burst outward rapidly at first, like smoke from a cannon, then slowed and dissipated, sifting and settling, covering sidewalks, streets, windshields, double-decker buses, phone booths, bodies. Survivors exiting ruins were coated head to toe as if with gray flour. Harold Nicolson, in his diary, described seeing people engulfed in a "thick fog which settled down on everything, plastering their hair and eyebrows with thick dust." 

There is nothing quite like a great book to make one wish to read more about a particular subject. I plan to read Larson's earlier publication, In the Garden of Beasts, but I'm also interested in Roy Jenkin's Churchill, Martin Gilbert's The Finest Hour, John Lukacs's Five Days in London, May 1940, Doris Kearns Goodwins' No Ordinary Time (which I began many years ago, but set aside due to its length), and William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (yes, another hefty read, I know!). 

I would also like to re-watch Darkest Hour, The Gathering Storm, Into the Storm, Winton Churchill's: Walking with Destiny, and Churchill's Secret. Any chance that Ken Burns and Erik Larson can get together and create a documentary based on this book? Please?

17 comments:

  1. Yes, I can see Erik Larson and Ken Burns working well together. I really knew little about Churchill before I read Splendid and the Vile. Reading this book made me long for a Churchill to run our country!

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    1. Deb, I think a lot of people shared your longing for someone like Churchill to run our country.

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  2. Wouldn't a documentary based on this book be great!! So glad you enjoyed up loving it, Les. It'll definitely be on my list of favorites this year, too. Planning to read In the Garden of Beasts sometime in 2022, hopefully before Nonfiction November.

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    1. JoAnn, I love a good documentary and think this has so much great material. Now to find an address for Ken Burns...

      I ordered a copy of In the Garden of Beasts to give to my husband for Christmas and plan to read it when he's finished.

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  3. This has been on my list for a while. I am hoping my book group selects it in 2022 perhaps - we like this author.

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    1. Diane, it's such an interesting book! It would make for a great book club discussion. I think I'll nominate it to my group for our 2022 list.

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  4. Like you, I have had trouble with the other Larson books I've read so your recommendation for this one has me adding it to my TBR list.

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    1. Helen, I probably enjoyed this more than his others since I have a strong interest in WWII and Churchill. I'm hoping In the Garden of Beasts will be just as good.

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  5. Your make me want to read for Nonfiction November! (Here, at the end of the month.😌) I loved The Devil in The White City, but I think a big part of that was because I was so interested in the history of Chicago outside of which I live. Plus, I’m always up for a mystery. But, I can certainly understand why you abandoned it and didn’t pick it up again!!

    Winston Churchill is indeed a fascinating person. I loved the film The Darkest Hour, which I saw with my mother who remembers much about his life as it affected hers. I’m intrigued by the sentence in your post which says “when leaders were leaders.” Oh, that we could have that again instead of all the futile posturing!

    So very glad to blog with you, dear Leslie, and continue to share our love for books over these many years. (Decade and a half, I think.) Thank you for your friendship and sweet, sweet comments. Xo

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    1. Meredith, I think you'd really enjoy this book. Churchill is such an interesting person and I loved The Darkest Hour, as well.

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  6. I'm so glad you enjoyed it! It remains a favorite nonfiction for me and the Mass Observation Diaries were a huge part of my enjoyment.

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    1. Jenclair, I would love to find more about the Mass Observation Diaries. Those sections really added to Larson's narrative.

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  7. I haven't read anything by him but one of these days I'd love to read several of his books. This does sound excellent. Thank you for sharing your review!

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    1. Iliana, I would recommend starting with this one, although you might enjoy Isaac's Storm since you live in Texas.

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  8. If you give something 5 stars, you bet I'm going to read it. This looks fascinating, and oh, how wonderful it will be to return to a time when we weren't bogged down in political dysfunction, as you said.

    I hope you and Rod and your mom had a wonderful Thanksgiving. :-)

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    1. Laurel, you will love this book, as would Eric (I think!).

      We had a wonderful, albeit exhausting, Thanksgiving. It was wonderful to see my three brothers and their families. It's nice to get back to our normal routines now, though. ;)

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  9. Great review! I'm pumped you liked it so much. That bodes well for me when I pick it up. I must have left town before I saw your post. There's also a book called Franklin & Winston that is very good by Jon Meacham, which we listened to on audio on a road trip to Idaho a couple years ago. My favorite Larson book is In the Garden of Beasts -- wow that book & story is unreal! But I need to get to this Churchill book .... sometime. Thx for the review.

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