World War II is surely among the most chronicled events in history. And Winston Churchill, the bulldog leader of Great Britain, is the war’s most chronicled figure.
So what do we need with another book on Churchill and the war?
It’s a good thing Erik Larson didn’t ask himself that question, or else we might not have gotten his fascinating and accessible book, “The Splendid and the Vile.” Larson, author of “The Devil in the White City,” closely examines the year from May 1940 — when Churchill took office as prime minister — to May 1941, when Adolf Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess made a misguided solo flight to England, hoping to single-handedly negotiate peace between Britain and Germany.
During that year, Britain snatched salvation from defeat on the beaches of Dunkirk and stood alone against Hitler as the conqueror of Europe unleashed a terrifying, monthslong aerial blitz against the island, killing or wounding nearly 100,000 Britons.
It was during this time that Churchill gave the stirring speeches for which he’ll always be remembered, inspiring his countrymen to fight on as they braced for an expected German invasion. Meanwhile, he was working feverishly behind the scenes to draw America into the war, knowing it was his nation’s only real hope for survival.
While Larson fully explores these larger issues, what brings his account to life are what one might call concentric circles of wartime society. He focuses on Churchill and his family, including his wastrel son Randolph and Randolph’s new bride, Pamela Digby, who would later move to the U.S. and, as Pamela Harriman, preside over the social scene of Washington, D.C.
The fascinating characters in Churchill’s inner circle get their due, including the eccentric genius Prof. Frederick Lindemann, who advised the prime minister on scientific issues; the scheming press baron Lord Beaverbrook, who served as Churchill’s essential confidant and also spurred the nation’s industry to greater wartime production; and John “Jock” Colville, Churchill’s private secretary. The usual complement of kings, dukes and assorted upper-class twits are also heard from.
But Larson goes a step further, drawing on the thousands of “Mass-Observation” diaries kept by regular citizens at the government’s behest as a crude way of gauging public morale.
It’s a broad panorama, encompassing everything from Churchill’s lavish personal spending habits to the squalor of bomb shelters in the London Underground to the fast-paced development of military technology.
The entire book comes at the reader with breakneck speed. So much happened so quickly in those 12 months, yet Larson deftly weaves all the strands of his tale into a coherent and compelling whole.
We know how things turned out, of course. The Brits survived the Blitz, the Americans eventually joined the fray and Hitler wound up killing himself in a Berlin bunker.
But that first year, when Britain was staggering on the ropes, only to gather itself and push on, makes for a lively and urgent read.
The Splendid and the Vile
By: Erik Larson.
Publisher: Crown, 585 pages, $32.