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If you can read only one book this year, I recommend The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson. A couple of weeks ago, on the National Review Flagship weekly podcast “The Editors,” Rich Lowry asked what the panelists were reading. One of the panelists said The Splendid and the Vile.
The next week, that panelist said that he had finished and another panelist said that he was now reading it! About that time, I heard one of the panelists at the Dispatch Flagship Podcast mention the book, and if memory serves, an MSNBC person said that he was reading it! All were in thrall with the book.
I have a colonoscopy coming up next Tuesday, and I wanted to take a quick vacation to southwest Colorado. I ordered the book. It arrived on Wednesday, 72 hours ago. I just finished its 503 pages a few minutes ago. In the last 72 hours, I have been driving some 600 miles and reading this book, stopping only to sleep. I immediately ordered a copy to be sent to my mother; I didn’t want her to wait for it to be delivered by “media mail.”
The subtitle is A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz. Almost all of the book is contained in the one year beginning on May 10, 1940, when Winston Churchill was summoned to meet with King George VI, who asked him to form a government. What a roller coaster ride! Holland and Belgium fell. The British Expeditionary Force was recused from Dunkirk. France fell. Churchill repeatedly rallied the English people. England had few planes in the RAF, so Churchill appointed his longtime friend newspaperman, Max Aitken, aka Lord Beaverbrook, to the task of building airplanes. The RAF repeatedly engaged the Germans. Then the Germans started a campaign of terror by repeatedly bombing England.
Churchill rallied the English not only in speeches but by going to bombed-out areas. The author follows the lives of Churchill’s daughter Mary, Lord Beaverbrook, Churchill’s personal Secretary John Colville, Hermann Goring, Rudolph Hess, Harry Hopkins, Averell Harriman, and Churchill’s son and daughter-in-law as people fell in love, broke off engagements, and struggled to combat the Germans. This was a very close-run thing. Hitler wanted England to capitulate like France, or be pounded into submission so they would sue for peace, or be invaded once enough boats were rounded up. Just thrilling.
There are so many great stories. A couple of months before Churchill’s grandson was born, a great-nephew was born and was given the full name of Winston Spencer Churchill. The baby’s mother, Churchill’s niece-in-law, was ordered to rename her baby, as that name was being reserved for Churchill’s grandson, not just a great-nephew. After a brief protest, she did so.
England was hanging on by a thread. FDR sent an emissary, Harry Hopkins, to report back to him. Aid from the U.S. was critical. Towards the end of his stay, speeches were given around the table. From pages 362-3:
Hopkins stood and, as Ismay recalled it, first made ‘a tilt or two at the British Constitution in general, and the irrepressible Prime Minister in particular.’ Then he turned to face Churchill.
’I suppose you wish to know what I am going to say to President Roosevelt on my return,’ he said.
This was an understatement, Churchill was desperate to know how his courtship of Hopkins was progressing, and indeed what he would tell the president.
’Well,’ Hopkins said, ‘I’m going to quote you one verse from that Book of Books in the truth of which Mr. Johnston’s mother and my own Scottish mother were brought up —‘
Hopkins dropped his voice to a near whisper and recited a passage from the Bible’s Book of Ruth: ‘Whither thou goest, I will go; and whither thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.’
Then, softly, he added: ‘Even to the end.’
This was his own addition, and with it a wave of gratitude and relief seemed to engulf the room.
If you read only one book this year, I recommend The Splendid and the Vile.Published in