October 22, 2020

“The Splendid and the Vile” by Erik Larson

I got to meet one of my non-fiction literary heroes, Erik Larson, in 2016 while playing the piano for a Chicago Library Literary Dinner. Every new book from him is cause for celebration, but he has outdone himself with “The Splendid and the Vile” about Churchill during the German blitz of England during World War II.

Doyle, Elizabeth Berg & Francesca Peppiatt

We get an inside look into Winston Churchill, his wife Clementine, his daughter Mary, his son Randolph, his daughter-in-law Pamela, as well as his familiars like his secretary John Coville or confidante Lord Beaverbrook. We also get to see what it might have been like for citizens of London and all of England. German bombs and incendiaries could decimate your home, your air raid shelter and your city’s architectural treasures in the space of a single evening. Larson helps you imagine what that continual anxiety must have been like during 1940 and 1941.

We are also given a glimpse into the thinking of Hitler’s acolytes, Hermann Goring, Joseph Goebbels and Rudolf Hess, to name a few of the infamous.

Especially noteworthy is the role the U. S. played in bolstering the morale of the British public. Harry Hopkins and Averell Harriman, representatives sent by FDR to report back to him, have their own important narratives. Before the U. S. officially entered the war after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the lending of military supplies, money and moral support to the British government and people helped prevent them from capitulating under the German air and water onslaught.

Someone blithely asked why we have to keep rehashing World War II. History repeats itself, as any historian will tell us, so it bears noting parallels between one’s current time and previous challenging eras.

Erik Larson has provided not only food for historical thought in “The Splendid and the Vile,” but created a non-fiction work with short informative chapters that impel the reader forward. Who says history has to be dry and dusty?

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