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The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz

by Erik Larson

“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, and the cadre of close advisors who comprised Churchill’s “Secret Circle”.

What you’ve just read is a description of the book, “The Splendid and the Vile” taken from the website of author Eric Larson. If his name rings a bell, it may be because of his #1 New York Times bestselling books “Dead Wake” and “The Devil in the White City”. Though I have read neither of those, after reading The Splendid and the Vile, I’m excited to read “Dead Wake”, the story of the last crossing of the Lusitania next.

Although I’m usually more of a fan of historical fiction than actual history, I found this book fascinating. I do like to watch The History Channel, but most often, no matter how interesting the subject, reading a book full of historical facts and figures is not my thing. This book is different … it draws so much from the actual diaries of the people who were living through these experiences. Not only are you getting the facts and figures (some of which are startling), but the author’s clever approach of combining historical fact with actual personal accounts made this a true page-turner. I never anticipated this when I picked the book up, but I swear I couldn’t put it down!

As the author explains, “Although at times it may appear to be otherwise, this is a work of nonfiction. Anything between quotation marks comes from some form of historical document, be it a diary, letter, memoir, or other artifact; any reference to a gesture, gaze, or smile, or any other facial reaction comes from an account by one who witnessed it.” The book is a plethora of eyewitness accounts from very unique perspectives, and all from real people who lived during these days.

By reading about what was going on in Churchill’s life at the time he was making some of the biggest decisions of his life, one feels a personal connection to historical events. When things aren’t going well for the British at some points during the war, the author’s writing makes one forget that you already know the outcome, and instead you feel the tension in the room. Although I’ve seen a lot of footage about The Blitz, while reading this book I personally found myself cowering in a London bunker, hearing the terrible screams of the bombs falling through the sky. The writing was so clear and specific that I often found myself, after finishing a chapter, pausing to quickly go online to find pictures of exactly where a town is located, photos from the time of war, and what that town looks like today. I was totally immersed. I really felt like I was living in this world, and I wanted to know more. It was fascinating to read about some behind the scenes events during Churchill’s Christmas visit to America, for instance, and then watch a video of the actual event.

My husband was chuckling because I had my nose buried in this huge book (the large print version ends with a single word, “Finis”, on page 831!). His curiosity was piqued when I reported that, for probably the first time in my life, I went on to read the entire “Sources and Acknowledgements” section, which ended on page 925. THAT’S HOW INTERESTING THIS BOOK IS!

Due to the authors brilliant talent for immersing you into life in and around London in that dark year, had I not known the outcome of the war, I honestly don’t know if I could have continued reading this book. The continual tension of the bombs being dropped every day during the blitz had me on edge in the comfort of my home. Erik Larson starts the book with the following Winston Churchill quote, delivered in the eulogy for Neville Chamberlin, November 12, 1940: “It is not given to human beings – happily for them, for otherwise life would be intolerable – to forsee or to predict to any large extent the unfolding course of events.” Winston Churchill certainly had his quirks, but his eloquence and perseverance kept a country together in the most uncertain times. Read this book!

P.S. Due to my new habit of spouting facts about eight thousand pound bombs, aerial mines and such, my husband recommended we watch “Danger UXB”, a British program about the men who were assigned to defuse unexploded bombs dropped by the Germans during the blitz. It is, indeed, a great companion to The Splendid and the Vile and covers the blitz from yet another human perspective. (The 10 hour DVD set is available through our Bridges Library System at www.townhalllibrary.org.)

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