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Arts & Culture

November Book Review: 'The Splendid and the Vile'

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What can be said about Winston Churchill and World War II that hasn’t already been said? Author Erik Larsen fills in between the lines of major wartime events in his book, The Splendid and the Vile.  Amy Mills has this month’s book review.

The Splendid and the Vile chronicles the first year of Winston Churchill’s role as British Prime Minister from May 1940 to May 1941, and gives a detailed account of life in London during the Nazi air campaign, known as “The Blitz”. What sets this book apart from many about this period of history is its focus on Churchill’s relationships with his entourage, his family, and other world leaders, and the daily lives of Londoners. Drawing from personal diaries and some new sources, Eric Larsen, well-known author of In the Garden of Beasts, Devil in the White City, and Dead Wake, goes where perhaps no biographer has gone before.

Larsen explains how Churchill, a complex and eccentric leader, was skillful at projecting national courage and resolve, successfully maintaining citizen support for the resistance even when the likelihood of success seemed dim. Through the year May 1940-41, the Luftwaffe’s air campaign against Britain escalated. Extracting accounts from diaries and other personal documents, Larsen describes how the citizens of London experienced death, destruction, and homelessness amidst the rubble and extensive disruption of everyday life. Many continued to work and tried to carry on a semblance of normalcy. Some, including Churchill’s daughter, even ignored the bombs and fires in a seemingly callous life of drinking and parties.

Churchill, meanwhile, sent pleading messages for help to President Roosevelt, who was contending with the US’ isolationist position and therefore reluctant to get involved in an overseas war. Larsen’s account of Churchill’s and Roosevelt’s communications gives the reader a sense of how tenuous Britain’s situation was until the US intervened.

Larsen also describes some of the odd personalities of the time, such as Lord Beaverbrook, ambitious British Minister of Aircraft Production, who tried to resign from his duties 14 times only to have his resignation rejected by Churchill each time. Then there was Hitler himself, obsessed with dominating Europe, and Hitler’s deputy, Rudolf Hess and his rogue flight to Scotland for his personal negotiation mission.

So hasn’t this history been written by others, including by Churchill himself? If you’re knowledgeable about the major events of World War II, The Splendid and the Vile might add some valuable depth and interesting insights into how Churchill and the people of London survived The Blitz.

The Splendid and the Vile is available from Park City and Summit County Libraries. This is Amy Mills of Friends of the Park City Library.