The Splendid and the Vile, by Erik Lawson

Splendid

I hadn’t planned on reading more about WWII, having grown up in the shadow it cast, but I found A Woman of No Importance with its story of boundless courage and energy so inspiring that I couldn’t resist this book. Also, I knew I was in good hands with Larson, having enjoyed his previous books.

True to its subtitle A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz, the story covers Churchill’s first year as prime minister. To say it was a tumultuous year is an understatement. When Britain declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939, then-Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain appointed Churchill First Lord of the Admiralty. Then when Chamberlain resigned on 10 May 1940, Churchill became Prime Minister. That same day, Hitler invaded Belgium, Luxembourg, and The Netherlands. The Dunkirk evacuation was only a few weeks later.

While I was already pretty familiar with events and people, Larson’s dramatic scenes and fast-moving action kept me engrossed. I was surprised by how gripping the story was, given that I already knew what was going to happen.

One factor, besides Larson’s skill as a writer, is all the new information from recently declassified files and intelligence reports—the amount of research Larson must have done is astounding. We get insight, not just into the workings and discussions of Churchill and his cabinet, but also into Hitler’s inner circle. The motivations and misunderstandings on both sides helped me understand some key decisions. We learn about the negotiations between Roosevelt and Churchill, who understood that Britain would fall without aid from the U.S.

Memorable anecdotes abound, such as Churchill’s aside after his famous “We shall fight on the beaches” speech. After he finished, Churchill said to someone near him, “‘And . . . we will fight them with the butt end of broken bottles, because that’s bloody well all we’ve got.’”

Also, Larson focuses on individuals, making extensive use of personal diaries and letters. We see Winston in private moments dancing at parties, wearing outlandish costumes. We hear his wife Clementine caution him to be less contemptuous and kinder to those around him. We follow their youngest daughter Mary and son Randolph’s wife Pamela as they navigate family and social life through this turbulent year. Churchill’s private secretary John Colville gives us unusual insight into the PM both in public and in private. We learn about the key roles played by newspaper baron Lord Beaverbrook and Federick Lindemann, a physicist and Churchill’s science advisor.

While I was fascinated by these private moments, my main feeling while reading this book was admiration for the courage of this flawed man who held his country together, even as Hitler expected them to surrender every day—surely they can’t hold out any longer! And for the British people themselves, who patiently put out the fires and swept up the rubble, patrolled fields and put up with appalling conditions in some of the shelters.

I was inspired by this tremendous example of leadership, and saddened too, considering where both the U.S. and Britain are these days. Larson’s book is more than an enjoyable read, more than a fascinating look into history’s public and private lives; it’s a brilliant primer on how to be a leader.

What book have you read about an inspiring leader?

Crooked Heart, by Lissa Evans

crooked heart

Lissa Evans’s fourth novel is set in and around London during the Blitz in WWII. The characters are ordinary people, not homefront heroes like midwives or wardens or detectives. Well, I say ordinary, but like the best fiction, Crooked Heart shows us how extraordinary each life may be.

In the remarkable prologue, we are introduced to orphaned 10-year-old Noel who lives with his godmother in Hampstead. Mattie, a suffragette in her younger days, has retained her free-thinking ways, treating Noel to an eccentric and wonderful education. However, she is beginning to suffer from dementia. As she struggles to remember words and where she put things, the wordplay and accommodations between Mattie and Noel are wonderful to behold.

I’m generally not fond of prologues, but I loved this one. In fact, I thought it the best part of the book.

All good things come to an end, including Mattie, and ostensibly under the care of her cousins, Noel is evacuated to St. Albans. Unprepossessing and limping from a bout with polio, Noel is the last child to find a home. Finally, Vera Sedge snatches him up for the sake of the stipend and extra rations she’ll receive.

Vera, known as Vee, is a widow who barely makes ends meet by sewing notions for hats and engaging in various small money-making schemes. She has little affection to spare for Noel since she is absorbed in waiting on her no-good grown son and elderly mother who spends her time writing letters to Churchill.

Noel, however, is quite brilliant and, thanks to Mattie, creative at coming up with unusual solutions to problems. He and Vee become partners in petty crime.

Much of the joy in this book is seeing how their relationship develops. The description of wartime London, where the two conduct their activities, is brilliant. More than what it’s like to take refuge from the bombs in a shelter or the unsettling disappearance of buildings, we learn about the plethora of minor crime going on while ordinary mores seem to be suspended. I also enjoyed the glimpses of regular life continuing during the Blitz, how people adjust to the new normal.

Much of the story is light-hearted, but it has its dark side—and I’m not just talking about bombs. The reader cannot help but share Vee’s ongoing panic about how to make ends meet and the extremes she’s willing to go to in order to pay the rent—just like today when so many are struggling to survive.

How can you not consider stealing a loaf of bread if your children are hungry? And I’m not just talking about the Blitz or Jean Valjean. People are starving today, even in the richest country in the world. People—especially single mothers—are unable to pay the rent and are thrown onto the street.

I’m sure there are those who would describe this novel as charming or heart-warming. Perhaps it is my own background that makes me so aware of the shadow of desperate poverty that haunts the comic shenanigans of Vee and Noel. As in drawing, thought, the shading adds depth and power to this story.

Have you read a novel that is by turns funny and sad, light-hearted and dark?