Winston Churchill in 1941.

Bob Brehl: A Churchill history that packs a wallop

  • March 11, 2020

Erik Larson has a special talent for taking historical events and writing nonfiction books about people related to the main event but somehow slightly off the mainstream, on the periphery.

His books range from a serial killer lurking at the edges of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, to a U.S. ambassador’s family protecting Jews in Hitler’s Berlin, to an interwoven tale between the great inventor Guglielmo Marconi and a man who almost pulled off the perfect crime.

Without doubt, Larson is one of the modern masters of narrative nonfiction. His “off the mainstream” style is refreshing and compelling.

This past week he was in Toronto talking about his latest best-selling book, The Splendid and the Vile, about Winston Churchill during that crucial year from May 1940 to May 1941 when Great Britain stood alone against Germany and the Nazi war machine that had just conquered Norway, Belgium, Denmark, Holland and France.

Writing about Churchill veers from Larson’s successful formula of characters on the periphery. Churchill was — and is — at the centre, not only during World War II but throughout the pages of 20th-century history. He was, after all, voted in a BBC poll of one million viewers the Greatest Briton of all-time.

So much has already been written about Churchill and by Churchill. Indeed, Churchill was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953. (I collect first-edition books written by Churchill or about Churchill and my vastly incomplete collection now fills two walls in our home.)

So, what else can possibly be said about Churchill?

To a crowd of 700 at the Ted Rogers Hot Docs Cinema on Bloor Street in Toronto, Larson told the story of his daughter’s reaction five years ago to his Churchill book idea. Not surprisingly, she said virtually the same thing, asking what new can be said about Churchill?

“Each day her question was in my head,” Larson said to on-stage interviewer Bob Rae, who studied at Oxford under one of Churchill’s proteges.

Larson went on with more detail about what gave him the idea for the book. A few years ago, he and his wife moved from Seattle to New York City. As he wandered around Lower Manhattan, he kept imagining the 9/11 terrorist attacks, picturing all the death, imagining the horror, the heroes and the dust covering vast swaths of the city.

Then, for some reason, his thoughts turned to the London Blitz when night after night (57 consecutive nights at one point) German planes bombed the city, knocked down buildings, terrorized and killed, and stirred up British dust hundreds of years old.

It was not a one-time event like 9/11. It was the relentlessness, Larson said, and the resolve of the people that attracted him to the story.

Like his other books, Larson initially set out to find interesting characters on the periphery to help him with the narrative. But quickly, he came to the conclusion the book had to centre on Churchill and his family who lived through the Blitz along with the common people.

As is his way, Larson found new material, including diaries of ordinary Londoners enduring the Blitz and the diary of Churchill’s youngest living daughter, Mary, who was 17 years old at the start of the Blitz. Larson was only the second non-family member to read Mary Churchill Soames’ diary.

“She is my favourite character” in the book for her candidness and teenage insights, Larson said.

During the audience question period, Larson was asked about New Brunswicker Lord Beaverbrook and whether he found anything in his research to indicate His Lordship Max Aitken considered himself a great Canadian or rather a Great Briton.

“I found nothing to indicate he thought of himself as a great Canadian and I found nothing to indicate he thought of himself as a Great Briton,” Larson said. “But I found plenty to indicate he thought of himself as a great man.”

That drew some of the heartiest laughs of many during an evening of both education and entertainment.

Nearing the end of the discussion, Rae told the audience that Larson did not wish to talk modern politics, but he was going to bring it up, anyway.

President Donald Trump views himself akin to Winston Churchill but “there’s nothing Churchillian about Trump,” Rae charged.

In measured tones, Larson responded that there is no one like Churchill, a man who saw the bigger picture in all things, especially when it came to democracy, decency and freedom. Though flawed, Larson added, Churchill had an amazing intellect, read voraciously and understood history and its implications on the now.

“I’ll leave it at that,” Larson said. For fans of history and nonfiction, Larson books are must reads.

(Brehl is a writer and author of many books.)

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