There are countless books about World War II, but there's only one Erik Larson.
The author is known for his fascinating non-fiction accounts of subjects ranging from guns to hurricanes; his best-known work, The Devil in the White City, told the story of the 1893 World's Fair and notorious serial killer H.H. Holmes. Over his career, he's developed a reputation for being able to write about disparate subjects with intelligence, wit and beautiful prose.
Fans of Larson will be happy to hear that his latest book, The Splendid and the Vile, is no exception. It's a sprawling, gripping account of Winston Churchill's first year as prime minister of the United Kingdom, and it's nearly impossible to put down.
Larson's book starts off with a recounting of "a singular event that occurred just before dusk on May 10, 1940, one of the loveliest evenings in one of the finest springs anyone could recall." Earlier in the day, Germany had invaded Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, sending a shockwave of alarm in the U.K., which was already dealing with political unrest — Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had resigned, and King George VI chose Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, to replace him.
He wasn't an obvious choice. Observers considered him "flamboyant, electric, and wholly unpredictable" as well as "capricious and meddlesome, inclined toward dynamic action in every direction at once." He was also dealing with several personal demons: He was deeply in debt, as was his son, Randolph, who had "a gift not just for spending money but also for losing it gamblling, at which his ineptitude was legendary."
But Churchill won over the British public in short order, in large part thanks to his now-famous speech on June 4, 1940, in which he proclaimed, "We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender." Amusingly, Larson writes, Churchill then turned to a colleague and said, under his breath, And ... we will fight them with the butt end of broken bottles, because that's bloody well all we've got."
Churchill also realized that "only the industrial might and manpower of America would ensure the final eradication of Hitler and National Socialism," and details his successful efforts to convince President Roosevelt to help the British out. He was overjoyed when Rooselvelt signed the Lend-Lease Act into law, having worried the American president wouldn't be able to get it through Congress: "This bill has to pass," he told Harvard University president James Conant. "What a state it would leave all of us in if it doesn't; what a state it would leave the President in; what a failure he would appear before history if this bill is not passed."
While Larson focuses heavily on Churchill and his family, he also provides a vivid account of the Blitz, the German bombing campaign that caused the British to live in fear for several months. Larson explores the reactions to the bombings from the prime minister and the royal family, but also from ordinary Britons. "One young boy, asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, a fireman or pilot or such, answered: 'Alive,'" Larson writes, thus managing to convey the terror that everyone in the U.K. felt. (Not every anecdote is so dire. Larson also writes about Joan Wyndham, who was determined to have sex with her boyfriend during the Blitz, lest she die a virgin. Her reaction afterwards: "If that's really all there is to it I'd rather have a good smoke or go to the pictures.")
Larson's decision to focus on a wide group of people — not just the Churchills, but also civil servant Jock Colville, scientist and adviser Frederick Lindemann, and military assistant Hastings "Pug" Ismay, among others — is a wise one. While Churchill is clearly the main character, Larson's profiles of his aides and colleagues add valuable context to the prime minister's role in the war. Many books have been written about Churchill, obviously, but by expanding the scope of his book, Larson provides an even deeper understanding of the legendary politician.
And although he doesn't at all neglect Churchill's actions and policies, he also paints a vivid portrait of the politician's personality, which was intense and erratic. In one telling anecdote, Larson recounts Churchill telling his family that if the Germans made it to their home, he wanted them to kill as many of them as possible. When his daughter-in-law objected, saying she didn't know how to use a gun, Churchill responded, 'You could go into the kitchen and get a carving knife.'" (He was not joking.)
There are many things to admire about The Splendid and the Vile, but chief among them is Larson's electric writing. The book reads like a novel, and even though everyone (hopefully) knows how the war ultimately ended, he keeps the reader turning the pages with his gripping prose. It's a more than worthy addition to the long list of books about World War II, and a bravura performance by one of America's greatest storytellers.