When a body of historical literature is as vast as the one on Winston Churchill in World War II, it’s fair to ask whether the world needs yet another entry. But when the author is a master of popular history like Erik Larson, The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz—the engrossing story of Churchill’s first year as prime minister—needs no additional justification.
Larson (Dead Wake) begins his account with Churchill’s assumption of power on May 10, 1940, on the eve of the British evacuation of Dunkirk, and continues for exactly one year. That highly consequential span saw, among other events, the fall of France, the London Blitz (Germany’s relentless aerial bombardment that killed nearly 45,000 Britons) and Churchill’s tactful but persistent courtship of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that culminated in the securing of material assistance vital to sustaining Britain’s war effort. It was also a year in which Churchill time and again displayed his unsurpassed gift for inspiring a beleaguered nation—through his oratory and through the sheer force of his personality—to persist through some of the darkest days of the war, when German bombs rained death nightly on Britain’s cities, and invasion seemed imminent.
But The Splendid and the Vile isn’t merely a story of war and diplomacy. Larson devotes considerable attention to daily life inside the Churchill household, including frequent weekend excursions at the prime minister’s country retreat, Chequers, where social gatherings often stretched into the early morning hours amid intensive war planning. Larson also humanizes the prime minister through stories of his teenage daughter, Mary, struggling to make the awkward transition into adulthood in the midst of war’s chaos, and his son Randolph, whose marriage was crumbling under the weight of a gambling addiction.
While Britain didn’t defeat Hitler in Churchill’s momentous first year, it unquestionably stared down annihilation and survived. Enlivened by Larson’s effective use of primary sources and, above all, by his vibrant storytelling, The Splendid and the Vile brings a fresh eye to a familiar story of courage, determination and hope.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our interview with Erik Larson, author of The Splendid and the Vile.