The Splendid and the Vile, by Erik Larson. Book report #33* (2020)

The Splendid and the Vile, by Erik Larsen. Pub 2020

This was a leftover from vacation, and one that I don’t recall how or why it made it into my book pile, as it’s not a genre (historical war fiction) I normally go for. I have wanted to know/learn more about Winston Churchill, but I already have plenty of other books about him that I’ve not yet read. Regardless, this floated to the top first. And I’m quite pleased it did, especially through the Remembrance Day period. 

The book describes a single year during The Blitz, specifically Churchill’s first year as PM. There’s a brief backstory about how that came to happen, but otherwise the story is entirely within that one-year period, starting in May 1940. And while the focus is on Churchill and his family, there are plenty of additional historical figures, people, and personalities that are brought to life. As it was during that time and as is told through countless other books and films, the resilience of the British people is remarkable throughout this story, seen in the records of ordinary Britons. But getting to know the more specific people around and a part of Churchill’s world at that time revealed even greater strength and the critical challenges of that period.

The others in his circle were very interesting, including his wife, daughter, primary secretary, and bodyguard. Larsen relies on extensive reading of diaries from most of these people (documents that were actually illegal for many of these people, as documenting life and experiences, especially about key government figures, was a crime in the time of war) and weaves all of these together into a story that reads more like historical fiction than a non-fiction book.

Churchill in his siren suit, c. 1940.

Churchill was a brilliant leader but was no saint. Like most 20th and 21st century leaders, he can be too revered and also too reviled – with the good overshadowing the bad and vice versa, depending on whether you love or hate him. In this book, Larsen is quite truly objective, presenting the brilliance and the missteps – the splendid and the vile – as they occurred, and ensuring that the reader sees neither a champion nor a villain but a person with extraordinary talents in extraordinary circumstances – not perfect overall, but perfect for that time.

The modern lesson for me was about that blend of good and not-so-good in leading figures everywhere. The tendency to demonize the others we don’t understand or agree with, and to canonize those who say what we want to hear for now (or are at best just the opposite of those we demonize), is the dangerous aspect of populism. Speaking to the people is important – it’s what rallies them to fight for good and to stand against evil – but that has to also involve saying what is true, not just what will motivate them. One of Churchill’s strengths was exactly that – he told the British people what they needed to hear to get them to stand strong, and those words were similarly intended to entice the US to help. But his messages were also always true if necessarily harsh and scary, and not always what people wanted to hear. If only we had leaders like that today. Instead, we have people who screech and yell and belittle those that don’t agree with them, who demand cooperation rather than encourage collaboration, and threaten violence to get their way.

I recommend this book as a good glimpse of those times, and a quick and easy read.

Fate: charity shop, as I’m unlikely to reread it.

24 – an author whom I’ve never read
27 – a new genre to me (non-fiction history)

* Books 31 and 32 did not qualify for this year’s list, so I did not review them here. 

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