Winston Churchill is one of those giant historical figures who seem to have sprung to life fully formed — in his case with a jowly, bulldog countenance, ample girth and a cigar clenched in his teeth. To picture him as a young, vital man, racing heroically back and forth between comrades trapped on two halves of a train separated by violence on a Boer War battlefield, is a startling juxtaposition.
It is just the sort of dislocation that Candice Millard relishes.
Her 2005 bestseller, “The River of Doubt,” offered a similarly unexpected journey. It portrayed America’s most vigorous president, Theodore Roosevelt, at his most vulnerable. Millard created a fascinating adventure narrative of Roosevelt’s feverish, despairing, near-death voyage down an uncharted South American river.
A more recent book, “Destiny of the Republic,” not only breathed life into one of our least known presidents, James Garfield, but it then killed him off in a fascinating story that wound up unexpectedly describing medical malpractice in late 19th-century America.
“Hero of the Empire” is a snapshot of young Winston Churchill, specifically his adventures in South Africa as a soldier/journalist during the Boer War in 1899. The son of a former chancellor of the Exchequer and descendant of one of the great heroes of British history, the first duke of Marlborough, Churchill was a privileged young man who dreamed of achieving military glory as a means of promoting his early political career.
After shipping out to serve in every colonial conflict available in the British Empire in the late 1890s (there were several), young Winston landed in South Africa to report for a London newspaper on the fight between her majesty’s forces and the recalcitrant Boers of South Africa.
Just weeks after his arrival, Churchill found himself trapped on a train in no man’s land. After a harrowing fight during which he quickly abandoned his journalist’s mantle and joined the fighting on the side of his compatriots, he was captured and made a prisoner of war by the Boers.
The rest of the tale describes that imprisonment, Churchill’s harrowing escape and his return to England as the first true hero of a war that hadn’t offered much good news to the folks at home until his arrival.
Aside from a gift for spotting compelling and underreported narrative material in the lives of familiar historical figures, Millard is an extremely talented writer, equally adept at penning heart-stopping battlefield scenes and the peculiarities of the emerging Boer culture in early South African history. She has an eye for telling detail and character insight, a dual skill that makes “Hero of the Empire” a page turner and a fascinating portrait of one of the 20th century’s great figures.
Tim Brady is a writer and biographer in St. Paul. His latest book, “His Father’s Son: The Life of General Ted Roosevelt Jr.,” will be published in January.
Hero of the Empire
By: Candice Millard.
Publisher: Doubleday, 381 pages, $30.
Event: Club Book, 7 p.m. Oct. 17, Hennepin County Library, Southdale, 7001 York Av. S., Edina.