Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Erik Larson has developed an aptitude for conveying important history in a comprehensible and entertaining fashion, which he did once again when he published The Splendid and the Vile. Told from the perspective of Winston Churchill and his inner circle, the book is majorly focused on his thoughts, actions and reactions during the infamous WWII Blitz where Britain endured massive bombings by the Germans.
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Erik Larson Explores The Blitz Anew
For most of the world, the words “The Blitz” carry much fewer and less significant implications than they do for citizens of Great Britain. Despite being separated from the European mainland, the country nevertheless saw its share of casualties during the Second World War, approximately forty-five thousand of them from the German bombing campaign. In The Splendid and the Vile, Erik Larson takes us through those days via the leadership’s perspective.
Winston Churchill is, I believe, a figure in need of little introduction, despite us having recently crossed the seventy-fifth year marking the end of the war. There are certainly both good and bad things to say about the man, just like virtually any person who ever lived, but he is largely recognized as being one of the pivotal factors in maintaining cohesion in his country, especially during its largest crisis.
While many historical books have been written on this period in history examining it from all sorts of perspectives, Erik Larson takes an original approach we haven’t seen much of, recounting the history from the perspective of Churchill and those surrounding him. Framing itself like a novel, this historical book treats Winston as the main character, taking us from his war-time retreat, to his private bunker, and to 10 Downing Street in London where so many important discussions were had and decisions made.
Additionally, we also get to see things from the perspective of a few people close to Churchill, notably his wife Clementine (who by the way has her own captivating biography), his daughter Mary, his son Randolph, and a few others to boot. Their day-to-day experiences are related based on numerous diaries and official documents, expanding the insight we had into this period of British history.
A Sacrifice by the Many in The Splendid and the Vile
I think if we examine the literature of the past decade in its entirety, we’ll find there has been a sort of movement of popularize topics which traditionally require specialist knowledge. While this has been happening most prominently in regards to various sciences, I think it’s also taking place in the field of history, and Erik Larson is one of those leading the initiative.
For most people, their knowledge of The Blitz is fairly cursory, being only able to trace the vague shapes of this historical period… and not for a lack of trying. History can at times be a daunting subject to learn, and it doesn’t resonate with everyone, despite its importance. I think with The Splendid and the Vile, Larson successfully transcends this difficulty.
I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.― Erik Larson, The Splendid and the Vile
Having plenty of experience at this point in relaying historical periods in novelized form, Larson does an absolutely fantastic job at presenting Churchill‘s wartime tenure as a story anyone can follow. Rather than bogging himself down with numbers and scholastic studies, Erik Larson prefers to make greater use of the diaries, creating a narrative where the human element is at the forefront.
Consequently, with the human element being so prominent, I found it was much easier to understand and relate (as much as it’s possible) what those people were going through at the time, and I’m not only talking about Churchill, but the nation as a whole.
On the whole, I’d say if a person didn’t know anything about this subject and was to read this book, they would hardly suspect it to be a factual work of history. It seamlessly reads and feels like a novel in both its structure and presentation, and I believe this is a factor which makes this book transcend its “historical” genre and appeal to a much wider audience.
The Truth of Different Perspectives
While the scientific debate rages on about the existence of an objective reality, I think we can all agree human recollection is about as subjective as a thing could get. Different people can remember the same event differently, especially when looking at it from different perspectives, and there are plenty of those to be found in this book.
Before going further, if you are worried about the accuracy and veracity of the information Larson offers in this book (or any of his books, really), you can always verify his listed sources yourself. From personal experience though, I can assure you the author is one of the most diligent and extensive researchers I’ve come across, and he’s been doing it successfully for a long time now.
As long as there was tea, there was England.― Erik Larson, The Splendid and the Vile
Anyhow, I can only be envious at the amount of materials, records, diaries, and declassified documents Larson was able to get his hands on, which he put to great use in order to fully realize the perspectives of people besides Churchill himself.
His inner circle of trusted friends and family is far from being simple and predictable, always offering some valuable pieces of insight, if not a bit of additional entertainment. Personally, I found his portrayal of Churchill‘s daughter-in-law, Pamela Digby, to have been one of the most unexpectedly interesting parts of the book.
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In addition to giving us some invaluable insight, these changing perspectives, which sometimes go all the way down to the regular British people, also play their role in preventing this history book from feeling like one. Simply-put, they help regulate the pace of the storytelling and add a good deal of variety to keep it all feeling fresh.
The Final Verdict
The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson is, in my opinion, one of the most fascinating historical books written on the subject of The Blitz, at least among the ones I’ve read. Combining a veritable wealth of research materials with a novelized pace and structure, I think it’s perfect for anyone looking for any kind of engaging history book (whether real or fictional) based around the Second World War.
Erik Larson is an American author of non-fiction and journalist whose works touch on the more morbid and practical side of life. The Devil in the White City, for instance, is an exploration of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and the infamous crimes perpetrated by the serial killer H.H. Holmes, In the Garden of Beasts, looks into the first American ambassador to Nazi Germany, William E. Dodd, and The Splendid and the Vile, chronicling The Blitz of Britain through Churchill’s eyes.