BookPage Top Pick in Nonfiction, October 2016
Winston Churchill looms large over the last century, a vivid player—for better or worse—in conflicts and crises almost everywhere in the British Empire. Controversial and complex, he became, as prime minister of the United Kingdom during World War II’s darkest days, beloved. In Hero of the Empire, bestselling author Candice Millard (The River of Doubt, Destiny of the Republic) offers a revealing portrait of the much younger man, smarting from his first political defeat and hungry for the fame he had yet to achieve. She explores the roots of Churchill’s grit and obstinacy, and the sheer luck that frequently saved his life.
Churchill’s contemporaries also come vividly to life in Millard’s narrative: his American mother, Jennie, and her lovers; his father, Lord Randolph, disgraced by mental decline; fellow correspondents and fearless co-conspirators; and his first love, the opportunistic Pamela. The whiskey and cigars are here, too, right alongside rats that eat his pillow, constant hunger and many close brushes with death. While it is now hard to imagine world history without Churchill, Millard’s absorbing tale of his role in the Boer War manages to be a cliffhanger—his story came very close to ending when it had barely begun.
Seeking fame in the form of a medal, Churchill was an entitled aristocrat in search of any war that could provide one. When being a soldier for the far-flung British Empire at the close of the 19th century wasn’t producing results, he became a war correspondent in South Africa for London’s Morning Post—and then heroically saved soldiers’ lives when their train was attacked by fierce Boer forces. Taken prisoner, he would eventually escape, leaving behind the two men who planned to go with him and a thank-you note for the sympathetic warden. News of Churchill’s heroics and harrowing escape inspired jubilation back home and vaulted him into his first seat in Parliament. The rest, as they say, is history.