The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz

The life and times of Winston Churchill may be among the most well-trod ground in historical nonfiction, but perennial bestseller Erik Larson (The Devil in the White City; Dead Wake) makes it feel fresh with new sources, a tight focus and a propulsive storytelling instinct. The Splendid and the Vile follows the first year of Churchill as prime minister, beginning with Hitler's invasion of the Low Countries, through the Battle of Britain and the signing of the Lend-Lease Act. Larson uses letters and diaries, some of which have never been published, to depict the Churchill family and their closest circles in vivid detail.

Hitler, initially reluctant to wage war on Britain, was incensed by Churchill's refusal to negotiate peace. In preparation for an amphibious assault across the English Channel, he ordered the destruction of the Royal Air Force. Bombings in London and Berlin soon escalated into massive attacks against British civilians, known as the Blitz. Larson depicts Churchill as an indomitable leader, inspiring a fighting spirit in his cabinet and the public. Yet Churchill's family, staff and colleagues sometimes suffered under his constant demands or were plagued by personal problems of their own. His son Randolph incurred enormous gambling debts. Daughter Mary resisted her parents' protectiveness by joining the Women's Voluntary Services and eventually leading an anti-aircraft battery. Wife Clementine fretted over her children's personal lives while entertaining ministers and foreign dignitaries at the P.M.'s country escape, Chequers. The Splendid and the Vile is a fascinating mix of the largest and smallest scales in human affairs. Larson blends domestic drama with the destruction of cities to riveting effect. --Tobias Mutter, freelance reviewer

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