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The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz

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On Winston Churchill's first day as prime minister, Adolf Hitler invaded Holland and Belgium. Poland and Czechoslovakia had already fallen, and the Dunkirk evacuation was just two weeks away. For the next twelve months, Hitler would wage a relentless bombing campaign, killing 45,000 Britons. It was up to Churchill to hold his country together and persuade President Franklin Roosevelt that Britain was a worthy ally--and willing to fight to the end.

In The Splendid and the Vile, Erik Larson shows how Churchill taught the British people "the art of being fearless." It is a story of political brinkmanship, but it's also an intimate domestic drama, set against the backdrop of Churchill's prime-ministerial country home, Chequers; his wartime retreat, Ditchley, where he and his entourage go when the moon is brightest and the bombing threat is highest; and of course 10 Downing Street in London. Drawing on diaries, original archival documents, and once-secret intelligence reports--some released only recently--Larson provides a new lens on London's darkest year through the day-to-day experience of Churchill and his family: his wife, Clementine; their youngest daughter, Mary, who chafes against her parents' wartime protectiveness; their son, Randolph, and his beautiful, unhappy wife, Pamela; Pamela's illicit lover, a dashing American emissary; and the advisers in Churchill's "Secret Circle," to whom he turns in the hardest moments.

546 pages, Kindle Edition

First published February 25, 2020

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About the author

Erik Larson

61 books65.6k followers
Erik Larson’s latest work of narrative nonfiction is DEAD WAKE: THE LAST CROSSING OF THE LUSITANIA, which became an immediate New York Times bestseller. His saga of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY, was a finalist for the National Book Award, and won an Edgar Award for fact-crime writing, and lingered on various NYT best-seller lists for the better part of a decade. Hulu plans to adapt the book for a limited TV series, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese as executive producers. Erik’s IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS, about America’s first ambassador to Nazi Germany and his daughter, has been optioned by Tom Hanks for development as a feature film.

His next book, THE SPLENDID AND THE VILE: A SAGA OF CHURCHILL, FAMILY, AND DEFIANCE DURING THE BLITZ, due out in early spring 2020, is a story of geopolitical brinksmanship during Churchill’s first year as prime minister, but also an intimate domestic drama, set against the backdrop of Churchill’s prime-ministerial country house, Chequers, and his “full-moon home,” Ditchley, where Churchill, his family, and his “Secret Circle” convene when the moon is in its brightest phases and the bombing threat is highest.

Erik is a former features writer for The Wall Street Journal and Time. His magazine stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper's and other publications.

He has taught non-fiction writing at San Francisco State, the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, the University of Oregon, and the Chuckanut Writers Conference, and has spoken to audiences from coast to coast. A former resident of Seattle, he now lives in Manhattan with his wife, a neonatologist and author of the nonfiction memoir, ALMOST HOME, which, as Erik puts it, "could make a stone cry." They have three daughters in far-flung locations and professions.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 11,435 reviews
Profile Image for Liz.
2,145 reviews2,761 followers
May 18, 2020
Erik Larson is my favorite author of nonfiction. He writes books that just grab me as well as always teaching me something new.

Looking back on Churchill, it’s easy to assume he was always loved and admired. But that’s not the case. He had many detractors on both sides of the pond. Larson does a wonderful job of giving us a flesh and blood Churchill - kimonos and all. His strength lay in being able to give the English hope and a willingness to fight on. After his moving speech about fighting on and never surrendering, he turns to a colleague and says “and...we will fight them with the butt end of broken bottles, because that’s bloody well all we’ve got.”

While Churchill provides the locus of the story, it is much more all encompassing. We learn exactly what England was up against in that first year of war. It’s the details that he gives us that stick with me. On the first massive bombing of London, it’s the “dust from the age of Cromwell, Dickens and Victoria” that rains down on everyone and covers everything. His choice of quotes are always striking. It’s the perfect blend of the monumental facts and the minute detail so that you have a complete picture.

I came away with a much better understanding of what the Battle of Britain was all about. I had not understood how much of England, not just London, was subjected to the horrendous bombing. And it put me in awe of the English ability to withstand such horror.

My thanks to netgalley and Crown Publishing for an advance copy of this book.
Profile Image for Nilufer Ozmekik.
2,307 reviews44k followers
April 17, 2023
This is splendid, intense, emotional, perfectly crafted and so far one of the best nonfictions I’ve read.
The author’s fantastic talented writing hooks you from the beginning and you see so many similarities about the portrait of Churchill has been adapted into Joe Wright’s movie Darkest Hour which has been brought Gary Oldman an Oscar statuette.

We learned so much about Battle of Britain and how British folks’ destiny has been sealed by a powerful and fearless leader’s smart tactics and powerful political moves. It was like a high tension fast forwarded chess game but unfortunately not only the pawns at risk, the entire country’s faith has been depended on great mind’s risky but also determined actions.

Especially reading the negotiation parts between Churchill and Roosevelt was illuminating and informative.

I also enjoy Churchill’s intimate relationship with his family members, his adorable cat, his eccentric, quirky nature. Clementine was not only his wife but also another greatest mind and strategist to help him look at the facts from other perspectives and of his daughter Mary was joyful, lovely character takes our minds from the war strategies and remind us the beauty of being young and hopeful.

Overall: it’s informative, phenomenal, action packed, controversial, breath-taking reading with its well crafted and perfectly portrayed characters that highly recommend to all readers who know the real taste of amazing writing.

Profile Image for Dem.
1,190 reviews1,131 followers
March 23, 2020
What a poignant read for the times we are in as the world is fighting a different type of war without the guns and bombs and those in government must make the tough decisions to keep us safe. A few Winston Churchills wouldn’t go amiss in heading the Governments of today.

Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few (Sir Winston Churchill)

I have always had a gra for Winston Churchill and was excited when I heard that Erik Larson was writing a book portraying London during the Blitz and focusing on Churchill and his family and friends.
I listened to this one on audible and while it’s extremely well narrated, it is not my favorite way to read non fiction and history as I am always wondering if the hard copy had maps, or photographs that I may be missing out on.

This is extremely well researched and written account and takes you right into those air shelters in London and the terror and fear that the majority of British folk faced during the war, I leaned so many facts and figures concerning the battle to save Britain and the early years of the war. I loved this take on Winston Churchill where his confidence, leadership and eccentricities shine through. When a country is facing the challenge of War a leader like Churchill is a necessity and Britain certainly had a leader who was fearless and could make the tough decisions needed at the time. I enjoyed reading about Rudolf Hess’s trip to Scotland and about the negotiations between Churchill and Roosevelt.

Churchill’s daughter Mary brings a fresh and young vide to the book as we see her excitement and fun loving escapades through snippets from her teenage to adult diaries to where she commands an anti-aircraft battery as a member of the Auxiliary Territorial Service.

I enjoyed reading about Churchill’s eccentric nature and what made him tick and his love for his cat. I adored his quirky nature and his ability to not give a toss what people thought of him. And of course Clementine who was not only a wife and mother but Churchill’s close advisor and confident , vetting his speeches, smoothing over his faux pas whenever he made them.

A terrific look back in history and a book I throughly enjoyed and I think readers interested in World War II and the battle of Britain might well enjoy this one.
Profile Image for Beata.
756 reviews1,157 followers
June 15, 2020
A terrific account of the 'darkest hour' from the perspective of the Churchills. Mr Larson has a special talent which allows him to engage a reader and leave them satisfied, like myself. This non-fiction is about the times when Great Britain was on the verge of falling into the Nazi hands and regime, and yet, Churchill and his charisma at that very moment prevented the catastrophy. The is not much politics although one might expect a huge portion of it opening a book in which Winston Churchill is the dominating figure. The book is about the spirit that kept the British carrying on during the omnipresent threat of invasion.
Personally I found the family accounts and the ways Mr Churchill sought to involve the USA in the war fascinating. The PM was aware of the importance of aid that could be delivered over the Atlantic.
'The Splendid and the Vile' does not focus on the British Isles alone but presents the Nazi perseverance in attempting to conquer them as well.
A truly highly recommended book of defiance that led to the liberation of Europe in the later years of WW2.
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,010 reviews604 followers
March 25, 2020
Few authors are as gifted writing - ‘non-fiction’ - that reads like - ‘fiction’, - as Erik Larson does.
With tenacity and sensitivity, Larson gives us an compelling account of history by humanizing the facts with the interesting array of characters.

Larson masterfully reimagines the “The Blitz and the Battle of Britain”, ( bombs dropping & German invasion), in uniquely human terms..... filled with personal and political drama....(tragedies of war, love, family, friends, colleagues, infidelity, divorce, and relationship frictions, were harrowing).
The result of Larson’s non-fiction-storytelling crafting....(following Winston Churchill‘s first year as Prime Minister), is a spectacular page turning book.

5 very strong stars! I had heard it was excellent - I was simply waiting for my ‘library turn’.

“Human beings are so stupid”....( from Churchill’s journal). His observations were not wrong.
Is this history tale relevant to today’s current events? You betcha!!!

Erik Larson can’t ‘do’ uninteresting books!

Blessings to all!
April 26, 2020
“Never was there such a contrast of natural splendor and human vileness.” (John Colville’s diary entry about the peculiar beauty of watching bombs fall over the city)

What better time than during a pandemic to read about the unrelenting courage of a people during one of the darkest periods of history? During the Blitz, Londoners endured fifty-seven consecutive nights of bombing. Tens of thousands of people died. How did the people endure such a terrifying ordeal? What was it like living day after day knowing that during the night the bombs would rain down and you might be one of the many who would die?

How did they endure? Churchill’s determination, unrelenting optimism, and eloquent speeches encouraged the people and gave them hope. He emboldened them to realize the part they played in this moment in history. Amid the sheer terror of the relentless bombings, Churchill was an extraordinary leader and a beacon of hope.

Churchill was a brilliant orator who never wavered in telling the people the hard truth, but always followed it with optimism and an unwavering conviction that England would prevail. His courage was inspiring and his is a picture of true leadership. But he was also a man who had his flaws, quirks, and idiosyncrasies. There was opposition to appointing him as Prime Minister, but at this particular moment in history he was the right man for the job and he got it right.

Covering Winston Churchill’s first year in office, between May 1940 and May 1941, Larson, known for his exhaustive research, used personal journals, archival documents, and intelligence reports. Through these we learn of the everyday lives of ordinary citizens, as well as those of Churchill, his family, and the people closest to him. No family is perfect, including Churchill’s. The stories of his wife Clementine, his daughter Mary (who ended up being one of my favorite characters!) , his son Randall, and daughter-in-law Pamela, provided much of the human interest stories, making this such a readable book. Though the subject is grim, there’s no shortage of humorous stories.

Plenty of books have been written about WWII and The Blitz, but only Erik Larson can tell it in an original way that makes history come alive. I felt as if I lived this story with these characters. It reads like a thrilling novel, but every word, every conversation, is true, and I wasn’t ready for the book to end. Larson writes history for people who think they don’t like history.

This is a true gem, don’t miss it!

* I received a digital copy of the book via NetGalley. All opinions are my own.
Profile Image for Holly  B .
850 reviews2,016 followers
May 25, 2020
This was fascinating, thrilling, and filled with those "go team" moments. Britain and the world VS. Hitler.

I took my time to read this history filled book. It was part memoir of Winston Churchill's first year as Prime Minister of Britain during WWII. I read lots of WWII fictional novels, BUT this author brought the battle front and center, behind the scenes and was almost impossible to put down.

I loved learning about Churchill and his circle. He was quite a fascinating, and courageous leader.
We learn about his private conversations, the secret operations with "code names" that were planned to stop Hitler. Spies and prisoner conversations, the yellow boxes that held communications for Churchill only.

The British people were also courageous and very confident in their leader. Loved how they kept their spirits high and just lived their best lives every day even through the heartbreak and struggles. What a moment in our time to read how they handled this!

A few other highlights... The targeting and scares at Windsor Palace, how it was to live through screaming air raids and bomber moons, a baby born during a raid, personal letters and thoughts on the war, quoted diary entries and MUCH MORE.

If you enjoy WWII history/ historical memoirs, I'd highly recommend this one.  So much research went into this, I'm in awe.

I bought this after reading my GR friends reviews so Thank you Friends!!
Profile Image for Larry.
76 reviews8,738 followers
January 21, 2021
Finally! I absolutely love Erik Larson’s other works, but I could not seem to get interested in this one. And, I couldn’t figure out why until almost the very end. There were too many story lines, centered around too many people that I found uninteresting, for me to stay with it for more than a few pages at a time. And, having read “In The Garden of Beasts” - which I loved - it seemed like this story was a result of all of the research and notes compiled and left over from that book. Anyway, I’ll read anything Larson writes, but this one fell way, way short.
May 27, 2020
I have read several books by Eric Larson but “ Devil In The White City” was always my favorite, but after reading “The Splendid And The Vile”, this one is a tie for me with the above book.

I have never read another author who can make learning about history engaging and easily readable. It was a bit hard to read in part because of the pandemic we are still struggling with. However, it was such a story of human strength, determination and victory that I found it uplifting.

I had never researched Winston Churchill in the past and knew him only by brief articles about him or short films. In reading an article by the author I found that after he visited New York he suddenly understood how New Yorkers felt about 9/11, it was an attack on their home city that none of us living elsewhere could truly understand. He then began to think of London and “the aerial assault of 1940-41 in which they endured 57 consecutive nights of bombing, followed by an intensifying series of nighttime raids over the next six months.”

It was then that he decided to write this book and focus on Churchill’s 1st year as prime minister and what it must have felt like to have his city invaded from the sea and sky. “This was the year that Churchill became Churchill, the cigar smoking bulldog we all think we know, when he made his greatest speeches and showed the world what courage and leadership looked like”. Wow what an incredible achievement of research and smooth flowing prose this book is. I learned about what Churchill’s family life was like and how much they struggled. There are also many characters, ordinary citizens, and what it was like for them, to know that when nighttime came the bombing would start again.

Reading this book transported me to England and showed me what a unifying leader Mr. Churchill was, how much the populace loved him and how he walked among the ruins and wept openly. He showed by his actions that he was right there in the battle with his countrymen and kept them inspired and motivated to continue the fight.

This book is as easy to read as fiction but is so educational I think it should be a strongly suggested read for high school students. To look at the war from the UK’s point of view and learn what can be achieved by fighting on in spite of the terrible odds they faced.

There has been so much written about this book but truly this is one of the top 10 books I have read this year, simply amazing!

I received an ARC of this novel from the publisher through NetGalley.
Profile Image for Jeanette (Ms. Feisty).
2,179 reviews1,945 followers
February 25, 2020
Publication day has finally arrived. Enjoy!

Be sure to set aside plenty of time to work your way through this deep exploration of one year in the life of Churchill and those close to him. It will require some patience, but if you're not inclined to read the multi-volume biographies about him, this book is an effective distillation of the man as he navigated his first year as prime minister.

May 10, 1940 through May 10, 1941 was a pivotal year, with the fate of England entirely uncertain and world domination by Hitler a frightening possibility. We know now that everything eventually came out right, but at the time that outcome was by no means a given. German invasion by sea appeared likely. Would England be under Nazi occupation like the rest of Europe?
Throughout this year, the English people were repeatedly traumatized by devastating bombing raids. The death toll and destruction was stunning.

What was this year like for Winston Churchill and those close to him? Larson uses diaries, letters, and other historical documents to reconstruct this time for him, his family, aides, and other government figures.

While Winston determined the fate of his country, his eighteen-year-old daughter Mary was doing all the frivolous things wealthy young girls do, war or no war. Falling in love with the wrong boy, going to dances and parties, and visiting her friends in the countryside. His son Randolph was doing what he always did, racking up gambling debts and getting drunk. John Colville, Churchill's private secretary, was suffering over unrequited love. And of course, Lord Beaverbrook tried to resign about a dozen times, when all he really wanted was for Winston to beg him to stay on.

As with any Churchill portrait, his amusing idiosyncrasies and peccadilloes are on full display here. He had to have two baths per day, and the water had to be 98 degrees. He had no body shame and shocked and embarrassed people with his full or partial nudity. Late at night, he put military marches on the gramophone and paraded up and down in his pale-blue onesie, toting his old rifle.
He was a difficult man, irascible, demanding, and moody. But he was also tenderhearted, forgiving, and easily moved to tears.

I came away from this book with a feeling of relief that Churchill was the one at the helm when he was needed most. This was the year that mattered, and he had just the right combination of skills and personality traits to stay the course, juggle strategies, and maintain high morale among the citizens. Hitler and Goring and Goebbels were repeatedly confounded by his unwillingness to surrender or sue for peace. They thought if they just dropped enough bombs, he would have to give in eventually. They severely underestimated his resolve, his resourcefulness, and his patriotism.
KBO was his motto, and KBO he did.
Profile Image for Faith.
1,900 reviews534 followers
December 3, 2021
In the Sources and Acknowledgements section of this book, the author states “...I set out to hunt for the stories that often get left out of the massive biographies of Churchill, either because there’s no time to tell them or because they seem too frivolous. But it is in frivolity Churchill often revealed himself, the little moments that endeared him to his staff, despite the extreme demands he placed on all.”

This is the kind of history that I like to read, social and political but not primarily military. The book covers the first year that Churchill was prime minister, from May 10, 1940 to May 10, 1941. During that time, the Luftwaffe was attempting to destroy the RAF and then it moved on to the bombing of London to destroy morale and keep England out of the war. Churchill was also trying to convince the United States to provide aid (and ultimately enter the war). This was an uphill battle due to the strong isolationist leanings of many in America. I loved the details about life at No. 10 Downing Street and in England at large. “Citizens brought gas masks to church and began wearing small metal identity disks on bracelets, in case they got blown into unidentifiable pieces. Civil defense pamphlets arrived in mailboxes, describing what to do if a Panzer tank appeared in the neighborhood.” The book gives insight into Churchill’s decisions and his family life. “The Prime Minister also kept snippets of poems and biblical passages in a special ‘keep handy’ file.” These snippets found their way into Churchill’s speeches.

A lot of information came from the diary of John “Jock” Colville, Churchill’s 25 year old private secretary. On one weekend visit to a country estate Colville saw a downed German bomber and then got his wish to witness (from the terrace of the house) an actual air battle among 20 German and British aircraft. Colville and a companion saw planes shot down, pilots parachuting to the ground and bombs setting targets ablaze. Then they played tennis.

I’ve read a little about Churchill, but not nearly enough. There are many (really long) biographies of Churchill, but this book gives a very interesting picture of him during this limited period. When Churchill toured a bomb site, he was described as: “Tough, yes, but at times weeping openly, overcome by the devastation and the resilience of the crowd. In one hand he held a large white handkerchief, with which he mopped his eyes; and his other he grasped the handle of his walking stick.” It was said that he had the ability to transform “the despondent misery of disaster into a grimly certain steppingstone to ultimate victory”. This book is entertaining, it’s informative but not dry. It made me want to learn more, which is the best thing I can say about a history book.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.
Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,780 reviews1,458 followers
October 28, 2020
The book follows one year in the life of Winston Churchill, the first year at his post as prime minister and the initial phase of the Second World War. It takes us through both the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. Starting in May 1940, it moves forward pretty much day by day. Nothing here is conjectured; all that is presented is based on solid fact and diary entries. What isn’t known is not said. It attempts to recreate the day by day happenings of not only Churchill but also those close to him. This reads almost as mini-memoirs of Winston and Clementine, their eldest son Randolph and his wife Pamela, the Churchill’s youngest, living daughter Mary and Nelson, their cat. Through the numerous quotes one gets a good feel for what each of the family members lived through this one year, May 1940 through May 1941. You also get a good feel for each one’s personality.

Outside of the family, one follows closely John Colville (Churchill’s private secretary), “Prof” Frederick Lindemann (friend and scientific adviser to Churchill), General Pug Ismay (close friend and confidant), Lord Max Beaverbrook (Head of Aircraft Production Ministry). Each one’s idiosyncrasies and personality traits are revealed. Details concerning Hermann Goering, Joseph Goebbels and Harry Hopkins are provided too. The book brings you close to these figures, shows you the personal side of who they are. There is of course history presented, but I do not see this as the main focus.

Here is what the book does well. Here is what I like.

*It puts you there in London during the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. Heavy bombardment, buildings burning, falling down around you. Gas masks are donned. There is a cordite smell in the air. Some are taken over by their fear; others totally disregard imminent danger. There is at the same time exuberant partying; the belief being that one must get the most out of life while one can. The fear of being alone, dying alone, has people clinging to each other. Sex outside of marriage has no longer the stigma it had before. NOT being hurt in a raid could fill one with exhilaration and happiness. Just to be alive was glorious.

*On closing this book, you feel you have come to know Churchill intimately. You have felt his indefatigable energy and vigor, his courage, his emotionality. One minute he is guffawing, laughing, with a cigar in his mouth and a glass of whiskey in his hand, maybe he is even dancing naked. Why not? As he says to Roosevelt, he has not a thing to hide. Then later, tears roll from his eyes. Or he may turn around and spout out the most magnificent turn of phrase. His oratory is magnificent.

* Clementine is shown from another perspective than in other books I have read. A more favorable view is drawn. What she does, why she pulls herself away and disappears for long periods makes perfect sense to me now. She is not cold and unfeeling; she is regaining balance to be able to go on. She is not afraid to say what she thinks. Winston listens to her and respects what she says. He saw that the air raid shelters were improved as she had advised.

* Now, when I think of Lord Beaverbrook, who quits over and over again to get his own way, I smile. The same thing happens with the “Prof”, Frederick Lindemann, and John Colville. These were Churchill’s friends and they have become mine too, simply because I know them now as human beings.

*The book ends with a good epilog. It concisely summarizes the fates of the central figures spoken of.

What’s on the negative side? The book needs much tighter editing. There are details that should have been cut. There is too much unnecessary information. One example will I hope suffice. We need not be told the size, shape and color nuance of the pills Rudolf Hesse (Deputy Führer to Hitler) packed on his solo flight to Scotland in 1941. On his own initiative, he sought to negotiate peace with Churchill. This certainly did not please Hitler in the least! The information about the flight and Hitler’s reaction to it belong here but not the color and shape of his pills!

When the book was over, I was relieved. The book seems very long for what it contains. If you have read a lot about the Second World War, you will not find much new.

Matt Addis performs the audiobook. All that he says is clear, and the pacing is perfect. He reads slowly; you have time to think and absorb what you are being told. This is very important with non-fiction. He wonderfully matches his intonations to the person speaking. He intones women and men equally well. English, American and German words are correctly pronounced. I adored his intonation for Winston. It’s marvelous. You feel as though you are listening to Winston Churchill himself! I do not hesitate to give the narration performance five stars.


*The Devil in the White City 5 stars
*Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History 4 stars
*The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz 3 stars
*Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania 3 stars
*In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin TBR
Profile Image for Melindam.
665 reviews294 followers
September 24, 2023
“The one universal balm for the trauma of war was tea. It was the thing that helped people cope. People made tea during air raids and after air raids, and on breaks between retrieving bodies from shattered buildings. Tea bolstered the network of thirty thousand observers who watched for German aircraft over England, operating from one thousand observation posts, all stocked with tea and kettles. Mobile canteens dispensed gallons of it, steaming, from spigots. In propaganda films, the making of tea became a visual metaphor for carrying on. “Tea acquired almost a magical importance in London life,” according to one study of London during the war. “And the reassuring cup of tea actually did seem to help cheer people up in a crisis.” Tea ran through Mass-Observation diaries like a river. “That’s one trouble about the raids,” a female diarist complained. “People do nothing but make tea and expect you to drink it.” Tea anchored the day—though at teatime, Churchill himself did not actually drink it, despite reputedly having said that tea was more important than ammunition. He preferred whiskey and water. Tea was comfort and history; above all, it was English. As long as there was tea, there was England."


- the Historical and the Personal
- the Factual and the Emotional
- the Heroic and the Mundane
- Sobriety and Humour.

Author Erik Larson and narrator Matt Addis took me on a journey where I knew the major landmarks (historic events during the Battle of Britain waged in the air) and the destination (final defeat of Hitler's Germany in 1945), nevertheless it was a hair-raising, goosebumpy, breathtaking wildride where I was time and again reduced to tears and thrust into despair, felt thrilled and elated beyond words.

Larson put together a colourful and sharp caleidoscope of facts, private diaries, newspaper reports and radio broadcasts to show us the Blitzkrieg from the POV of Churchill and Britain (Chruchill's daughter Mary and private secretary John Coleville, plus several British "mass observation diarists" -I did not even know that was a thing!!), major players in Germany (Hitler, Hess, Goebbels, Göring, Adolf Galland) &the United Sates (Roosevelt, Averell Harryman, Harry Hopkins).

It was like listening to a live docu drama - full of tension and excitement. I cannot praise or recommend it high enough.
Profile Image for Ian.
764 reviews65 followers
May 16, 2022
Initially I wasn’t going to read this as I felt I’d read enough on this period in British history. I changed my mind after seeing the number of favourable reviews the book has received. To borrow a word from the title, this book is splendidly readable. My edition has about 500 pages, not including the notes, bibliography and index, but I whizzed through it.

I’ve said in other reviews that Britain was incredibly lucky to have had Churchill as leader in 1940. The margin between survival and defeat was a very thin one and this was a genuine case of where leadership made the difference. The book focuses on Churchill and his inner circle during the period of May 1940 – May 1941, and how they coped during a period of constant military reverses and nightly bombing of the country’s cities by the Luftwaffe. Substantial parts of the book are quite gossipy, focusing on the personal lives of Churchill’s children and entourage. This is deliberate on the part of the author - he says at the outset that he wanted the book to be a different slant on the study of Churchill in 1940, a subject that has otherwise been exhaustively covered. I was surprised though that he made no mention of the “War Cabinet Crisis” of 27/28 May 1940, when Lord Halifax suggested Britain should seek terms from Nazi Germany. That must have been a stressful time for Churchill.

The book’s other main theme is a study of London during the Blitz. There are some remarkable descriptions of the period, such as the number of accidents that occurred because of the blackout. There were also marked changes in sexual behaviour. Faced with the possibility of an early death, married people had affairs and young people threw caution away. An actress, Theodora Rosling, wrote of the Blitz:

“It was God’s gift to naughty girls, for from the moment the sirens went, they were not expected to get home until morning when the ‘all clear’ sounded. In fact, they were urged to stay where they were … Young people were reluctant to contemplate death without having shared their bodies with someone else. It was sex at its sweetest: not for money or marriage, but for love of being alive...”

I was astonished to read that the annual debutantes’ ball, at which aristocratic young women were “presented” to society, took place at the Grosvenor House Hotel in March 1941, during the middle of a massive air raid. That’s one of the most stereotypically British things I’ve ever read. Another was a description of Churchill, Colville and others falling about laughing whilst watching a German newsreel of a meeting between Hitler and Mussolini at the Brenner Pass, with the two dictators strutting about and giving each other fascist salutes, “funnier than anything Charlie Chaplin produced in The Great Dictator”, according to Colville. In its descriptions of the Blitz though, the book’s focus on Churchill’s inner circle means that we hear more of the voices of the elite than of ordinary Londoners.

If there was ever a case of “cometh the hour, cometh the man” it was Churchill in 1940. This is an entertaining and novel addition to the voluminous body of work about the man and his time.
Profile Image for Marialyce (on our way to Venice).
2,038 reviews709 followers
January 10, 2020
5 outstanding stars

As always is the case, books by Erik Larson transcend the usual historical novel. This author always goes above and beyond in his books and provides the readers with a story that not only flows smoothly, but also is able to provide facts that are fascinating, erudite, and ultimately educate the reader, in a way that is fascinating and captivating.

There are multiple books about Winston Churchill, but this one merged together flawlessly pieces of his life. Winston had the uncanny ability to unite a nation that was bombarded with everything Nazi Germany had in its arsenal, but still managed to carry through to victory. It was also a fine tribute to the men and women behind the scenes, those who carried on because of Winston, and those family members who so believed in their husband and father. Winston didn't believe in failure and though there were many, his indomitable spirit seemed to transcend defeat and inspire in the British people that spirit, and drive that nothing could or would crush them.

Winston's character, that tough cigar chomping man who had various idiosyncrasies, was a marvel among men. His spirit and determination led a beleaguered country to its ultimate goal, that of staying a free Britain. He was a masterful leader of people, who made those around him strive for things it seemed impossible to achieve. The populace adored him, as he made himself one of them, walking through the ruins of war so gallantly and heroically, delivering speeches to the people, standing tall in the face of an imminent defeat. He was the man England needed and he pushed through valiantly, providing his nation with the spirit and determination it so needed in its hour of darkness. “Victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the hard may be; for without victory there is no survival.”

If you are at all interested in history, in a man, in a country that stood up to what others might have claimed as unbeatable odds this book is one for you. I recommend it most highly for its authentic look at a man and a time that should always be viewed as the epitome of the human spirit.

Thank you to Erik Larson, Crown Publishing, and NetGalley for an advanced copy of this fabulous book due out February 25, 2020.
Profile Image for TXGAL1.
281 reviews41 followers
January 21, 2020
Erik Larson has done it again! The Splendid and The Vile is the one nonfiction book you need to move to the top of your TO BE READ list now. If you are a lover of history but not the “put-you-to-sleep” book of facts and figures, this book is definitely for you.

Mr. Larson selects the first year of Winston Churchill’s service as Prime Minister of Britain, 5 May 1940 – 5 May 1941 to focus our attention on not only the life of Winston Churchill, but also his family and others that come into his sphere of influence during this period. We are privileged to get “snapshots” of conversations, thoughts, deeds, lives of those directly affected by the War from the diaries of those who lived it. This all woven within an expertly well-researched and fascinating book.

The vile acts of a fascist Germany waging a second war against countries that refuse to accept its ideology are juxtaposed against a free Britain that is barely hanging on against the psyche-shattering nightly bombings. Germany sets out to bring Britain to its knees with an eye-watering number of planes and bombs. Hitler expects that Britain can be bombed into submission. The results of this campaign of terror and how it affects daily life is stunning.

But life must go on for the British. Churchill must rally the people, the government and allies to accomplish his goal and introduce Germany to the consequences of its path of destruction.

It is splendid unity and resilience of a common cause.

My thanks to Crown/Random House for this advance copy in exchange for an unbiased review.
Profile Image for Dmitri.
202 reviews158 followers
June 27, 2022
"I have nothing to offer but blood, tears, toil and sweat."
- Churchill Address to the House of Commons, 13 May 1940

"We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and in the air. We shall defend our island whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets. We shall never surrender." - Churchill Address to the House of Commons, 4 June 1940

"Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty and so bear ourselves that if the British Commonwealth and Empire lasts for a thousand years men will still say this was their finest hour." - Churchill Address to the House of Commons, 16 June 1940

"Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few." - Churchill Address to the House of Commons, 20 August 1940


Author Erik Larson did undergraduate studies in Russian history at U. Penn before a journalism masters at Columbia. It's surprising after a twenty year career of writing non-fiction he hasn't covered any Russian periods. It would be interesting to read as his books are well written. This one is no exception, about Churchill's first year as PM, as France fell and Britain was bombed. I am not a WWII expert by any measure. Having read only a few general histories the events were mostly fresh for me.

One thing Larson does well is to put the reader inside scenes he describes without fake dialogue or internal thoughts. The words of the actors are taken from diaries and letters, the stage sets from real life and the rest filled in with historical background material. It helps that many people published memoirs of the time. The ability to see and hear aspects of the history available on internet photography and recordings is also an advantage. It adds almost as much information as is contained in the book.

Something that stands out, and probably not a surprise for anyone else, is how heroic Churchill actually was. In the first days of his office, faced with existential threat, he was able to inspire confidence and action in others. At the age of sixty five, when many might wish for a quiet retirement, he led Britain from destruction by an aspiring empire. His oratory skills, energy and creative thinking were off the scale, but in other ways he was stubborn and impulsive. His own ideas on empire were another issue.

Larson covers from May 1940, when Churchill is reluctantly requested by King George VI to form a government, to May 1941 when the Blitz ends. Hitler's air force is repelled and without air superiority he calls off the land invasion. Along the way we follow Churchill, his cabinet and family, from 10 Downing Street to his weekend residence Chequers. The book covers the major air battles, propaganda wars, an aircraft production campaign and efforts to influence FDR, ending in the attack on Pearl Harbor.

As in many popular histories there is a fair amount of fluff included. There could have been less frequent excursions into the love life of Churchill's family and staff. Newspaper articles, polls and social surveys are employed, an approach developed by academic historians, used with advantageous results. Goering and Goebbels appear in vignettes, as does Rudolf Hess and his mysterious flight to Scotland. Larson's accounts of the pulverizing 'Satan' bombs on buildings and people in England are riveting.

Larson succeeds in representing one facet of the conflict. Like his 'Garden of Beasts', about an American ambassador's family in Hitler's Berlin, he adds a dash of dishy character development. Most people included had important roles to play, from ministers and special appointees to friends and family. The tension and terror of the screaming Stuka dive bombers and Spitfire defense are well described. Future air battles on this scale with modern military technology would cause unthinkable devastation.
Profile Image for Barbara.
285 reviews247 followers
July 7, 2020
I have read a fair amount about Churchill, the bombings of Great Britain, and the relationship between Churchill and Roosevelt (not to mention having viewed many movies and documentaries). While there is necessarily some factual overlap, I found this book, told mainly through the lens of the Churchill family, to be a fresh and intimate account of those dark days. John Lee did a great job narrating the audio version. His voice really brought Churchill alive. I knew of Churchill's intelligence but not his quirkiness. These details were amusing and also made him seem so charming.

Churchill's leadership and his ability to inspire through his oratory talent has long been recognized. While our current pandemic pales when compared to the fifty-seven nights of bombing endured by the people of Great Britain, there are parallels and comparisons that can be drawn. Churchill was able to instill courage and hope in the people he served. He united the people, not with false hope but with fortitude. The Nazi's were vile, the attacks were vile, but Churchill's words were not vile. His words were carefully chosen, chosen to guide his people and help them persevere. It was refreshing to be reminded of what great leadership is and how powerful and important the words of a true leader are to the populace.

I confess to a bias; Larson is a favorite author of mine. He never disappoints. His books are always informative and extremely compelling. Any reader who believes non-fiction is dull and needs to be avoided should give this book a try. This book, and all of the books I have read by Larson, bring history to life. I will never again view a full moon and not think, "What a beautiful night for an air raid."
Profile Image for Jill Hutchinson.
1,480 reviews104 followers
April 23, 2020
What can I possibly say that hasn't already been said by the hundreds of reviewers of this book! Superb comes to mind....masterful....enthralling....future classic.....WOW!!! Erik Larson has taken his place in literary history with his series of books which seem to just be getting better as time goes by. His research appears to be infallible and often doesn't depend on the usual sources.

if your are a particular lover of all things Churchill, it sometimes is hard to find a book that offers new information but Larson succeeds. We follow Churchill from his first day as PM through the end of the first year (with a short final chapter on the lives of the main players in later years). It was the job of Churchill and his government to recover from the appeasement attitude of the previous PM and prove the England (and London) "can take it". The events of the first days were enough to knock most countries off their pins as the BEF retreated to the beaches of Dunkirk and it appeared that they would be lost. This great defeat was turned into a moral victory as Churchill sent ships and private craft across the Channel to rescue the British and French soldiers. And thus began the second career of the finest and most controversial PM in British history. Highly, highly recommended.
Profile Image for Kathleen.
1,387 reviews115 followers
March 25, 2020
Leadership! Apparently King George VI felt that Churchill had something that the country needed when he appointed him to replace Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in the spring of 1940. Observers, at the time, felt Churchill was “flamboyant, electric, wholly unpredictable” and a questionable choice to be Prime Minister. Larson’s excellent non-fiction account confirms that Churchill was all of that and more. But most of all he was a leader who knew how to move a nation with the force of his personality and stirring speeches. [I learned that Churchill often practiced certain phrases and references with family and friends before incorporating them into his speeches.]

Larson provides a vivid account of Churchill’s first year as Prime Minister when the Germans pounded the British with bombing night after night. Churchill knew that the British could not hold out forever; and Larson’s account includes how Churchill wooed the United States to come to his country’s aid—first through the Lend-Lease Act and then entry into the war itself after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Highly recommend this wonderful addition to Churchill biographies.
Profile Image for Joy D.
2,068 reviews239 followers
November 23, 2019
I have always admired the British for standing up to Hitler’s forces in WWII, after almost all of Europe had fallen under Nazi control. How did they endure the almost nightly bombing raids? This book focuses on Churchill’s first year (1940-1941) as British Prime Minister, the Battle of Britain, and what life was like for Churchill, his family, and his inner circle. As Larson states in his introductory notes to readers:

“Mine is a more intimate account that delves into how Churchill and his circle went about surviving on a daily basis: the dark moments and the light, the romantic entanglements and debacles, the sorrows and laughter, and the odd little episodes that reveal how life was really lived under Hitler’s tempest of steel.”

Larson draws upon memoirs, diaries, letters, recently declassified material, and many other sources documented in the appendix. He artfully weaves personal stories into the larger tapestry of significant events, Churchill’s famous speeches, and the escalating war with Nazi Germany. He shows Churchill’s active pursuit of involvement by the United States, along with the obstacles. The reader gains insight into Churchill as a person, including his leadership style, daily routines, and eccentricities.

Mary Churchill’s diary and previously unpublished excerpts from John Colville’s journal provide material for many personal anecdotes. I found it interesting that Mary, Churchill’s seventeen-year-old daughter, acts as most would expect of an adventurous teen, even while her parents try to protect her by sending her away from London. Larson also mines German sources, such as Goebbels’ journal and fighter pilot Adolf Galland’s recollections.

A few highlights include:
- The need to camouflage Chequers, the country house supplied to the Prime Minister, where he entertained family, colleagues, and dignitaries
- Professor Frederick Lindemann’s scientific ideas to assist in the war effort
- Rudolf Hess’ flight to Scotland

The Splendid and the Vile is a masterful work of narrative non-fiction and is up to the high standards I have come to expect from Erik Larson. I have previously read five of the author’s works and this one is of the same superior quality. Larson puts the “story” in history. Highly recommended!

Many thanks to the publisher via NetGalley for an advanced reader’s copy. This book is scheduled to be released February 25, 2020.
Profile Image for Anne .
455 reviews376 followers
October 3, 2020
I've read many accounts about WWII and the Blitz, but what Eric Larson did so supremely well with this book, much of which was new to me, was to provides the fascinating inside story of the personal lives of Churchill, his family and the people who worked close with him, including 2 American aides. These details could be funny , poignant or just informative; they read like gossip from People magazine - engagements, marriages, childbirth, love affairs, breakups, unrequited love, broken hearts, temper tantrums (Churchill's), and parties. Lots of parties. Thank goodness people kept personal diaries in those days. These personal details mixed in with the accounts of the bombing of London, Churchill hoping anxiously for more and more aid from America, and England's reprisal attacks on Germany made the book so compelling even though I already knew the ending.

I've read about the courage and optimism of the British people during this time but Larson shows us how responsible Churchill was for these. HIs radio speeches were always truthful but full of optimism. He was beloved by the people. He would often make it a point to visit a site which had just been bombed the night before and would get rounds of applause and cheers from people who had just lost their homes and perhaps loved ones.

I'm so thankful that the English people had Churchill as their leader during this war because he was such a beacon of optimism and held the country and it's people together under such trying times. Churchill was only human and did not have the proverbial English stiff upper life. He held the weight of this war on his shoulders and during hard times his spirits would flag and he would need bolstering in order to regain his optimism. This could happen through receiving good news, a talk with a close friend and associate, a bath (he took 2 a day) or having his most trusted advisors and friends over for dinner and staying up until 2 at night singing and dancing much to the dismay of many who preferred to be in bed but stayed up out of politeness.

Despite the report of death tolls and the details of the bombing raids this novel is so full of optimism, fun and of a country unified that I often had a feeling of wanting to have been there! I suppose that may have something to do with our country's (and the world's) current crisis and how our country is currently being led.
Profile Image for Holly.
1,449 reviews1,091 followers
July 28, 2020
As an aside, I was a little depressed by how resilient the British people were during this awful time for their country. They willingly blacked out their windows for safety in the evening, suffered through sleepless nights in air raid shelters during bombings, and then woke up and then went to work the next morning or helped cleanup/retrieve the dead on a volunteer basis. Meanwhile the Americans were selfish jerks who refused to help Britain in any meaningful way until the bombing of Pearl Harbor. And even now we have idiots who won't even wear a mask in the middle of a pandemic because it supposedly infringes on their "freedom". We are the worst! But I digress.

This book took me almost four months to finish reading, but that's not a reflection on the book itself. It just turn out that a book about WWII wasn't something to lighten my mood during this months long quarantine. Who would have thought? Haha!

On it's own merits, this actually is a really good book. It brought to life not only Churchill and his immediate family/retinue, but also the conditions of how the British civilians lived during this time, and insight into some of the key German leaders that planned the attacks on England. The extensive use of diaries as sources/quotes for this book really enhanced what otherwise might have been a dry rendering of events (much like we all learned in school).

I hands down recommend this book over the only other book I have read by this author, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania.
Profile Image for Sue.
1,272 reviews549 followers
April 1, 2020
Larsen has written an intimate portrait of Churchill’s first year as Prime Minister of Britain, undertaking his duties as Hitler and Germany resolve to break the island nation to their will. He writes of Churchill himself, his peculiarities, his resilience, his dogged determination to obtain assistance from Roosevelt and the United States. Additionally, he adds details from the viewpoints and the lives of Winston’s daughter, Mary, a somewhat starry-eyed eighteen year old, son Randolph, a married but philandering gambler, daughter-in-law Pamela, loving wife Clementine, and private secretary John Colville, among others. All of these people left trails of information behind, whether in diaries, letters, etc., that Larsen used in pursuit of his own approach to Churchill’s life.

Through this method, combining the very personal daily details with overall war strategy, we readers are allowed a close up view of the intensifying air war over Britain, the Blitz, the Battle of Britain. To counter that, we are also provided with some inkling of what is happening among German leadership.

I strongly recommend this book to all who enjoy history or just enjoy a true story of a dangerous time very well told. We know how it ended, but not how close the story came to a different ending. Here you will see a portrait of leadership at its strongest, a nation holding together in spite of horrific loss. Churchill is the linchpin who held everything and everyone together.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest review.
Profile Image for Judith E.
571 reviews194 followers
July 30, 2020
Articulate, charismatic, courageous, honorable, inspiring, admirable, well informed, and someone to trust for guidance - these are a few of the characteristics Winston Churchill imparted to the British while the German Luftwaffe incessantly bombed their Britain.

As usual. Erik Larsen has written his account scouring a barage of documentation that includes personal diaries, military statistics, autobiographies and more. He gives the reader a flavor not only for the air battle but also for the inner workings of Churchill, his confidants, his family, their unique personalities, and the strength and fortitude of the British population. The cast of characters is immense.

A fictional war story could not be as engaging and Churchill’s personality and work habits are what make this an amazing historical telling.
Profile Image for John.
38 reviews69 followers
September 18, 2020
Wow! What a fantastic book. I had read some of the history of the Blitz, but nothing with this type of depth. It depicts a city and country under horrible siege. It further depicts a country and its people's resilience to the horror.

Larson's work focuses on Churchill, yet gives the reader feeling for the impact of the years of the Blitz on his close associates, immediate family, and the country as a whole. He also delves into the mindset of the German leaders and their anticipated outcome of bombing the British people into submission.

I learned much about the man and leader Churchill was, from his quirks (Siren suits and martial music), insecurities, and his well-known fortitude.

A must-read for lovers of WWII history, English history, or those looking for a great non-fiction read.
Profile Image for Michael.
1,094 reviews1,538 followers
April 28, 2020
A common reaction to this title is “why in heaven do we need another book about Churchill and the Battle of Britain?” For me, knowing Larson’s talent for homing in on obscure human stories amid historical events, I could only rush to dive in and see what he picked up on and how it could achieve fresh revelations. Despite my fairly recent reads of the Manchester/Reid biographical trilogy on Churchill and Korda’s history of the Battle of Britain, “On Wings of Eagles”, I was well satisfied with this tour of the daily life of Churchill’s inner circle and family during his first year as Prime Minister starting in May 1940. We get a portrait of adaptation and resilience of individuals putting up a last stand of defiance in the face of Hitler’s takeover of most of Europe. And somehow, despite the horrors of the long bombing campaign by the Luftwaffe, pursuing the simple pleasures of life and love in the intervals they could steal.

Churchill’s leadership and the adoption by the populace of widespread volunteerism and the attitudes of “soldiering on” go hand in hand, each inspiring the other. Just what we would wish we could have for the COVID pandemic. It is fitting that NY Governor Cuomo has effectively shared Churchill quotations for inspiration, including:

"Never was so much owed by so many to so few”—with respect to first responders and health care staff being saviors like the RAF and air defense staff

“This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning”—with respect to first signs of a plateau in new cases being like a hopeful phase in a war destined to last much longer

Larson forges his own path for explicating Churchill’s personality in relationship to his leadership qualities. Behind the clever tactician and ambitious wheeler-dealer, we experience his rollercoasters of mood from humor and delight to blackdog despairs and sense of affront when thwarted. Larson leavens his story with choice examples of Churchill’s episodes of casual nudity, of his child-like breaking out into song or dance, and of sudden tears in response to basic kindness of ordinary people: The child never left the man..

A key factor in his success was his inspiration of loyalty and trust in a special set of people in his inner circle. His minister of war production, Max Beaverbook, and scientific advisor and Oxford physicist Frederick Lindemann, get the most air time in the narrative. Churchill sanctioned Beaverbrook to wield incredible power to appropriate facilities and supplies for aircraft manufacturing, often at the expense of other wartime industries, making it possible for the RAF to keep up in the war of attrition with the Luftwaffe. Despite continually submitting resignations in order to leverage getting his way, Churchill always forgave him while giving in.

Like Beaverbrook, Lindemann (the “Prof”) was disliked by many for a comparable arrogance and irascibility, yet was welcomed as a virtual member of the Churchill household for countless evenings and weekends. Though his main job was running a department of statistics charged with assessing British and German military capacity, he was given ”license to explore any scientific , technical, or economic matter that might influence the progress of the war”. Many of the schemes he cooked up captured the childlike imagination of Churchill, who then pressed for investing resources on them. Dropping bombs by parachute in front of German bombers was one such scheme that proved ineffective. By contrast, the Prof’s support of a former student’s inferences about the German use of a radar guidance system for night-time bombing, dismissed by the Air Command as impossible, proved to be true, opening paths for countering their system.

The true strength of Larson’s narrative are the portraits he paints of his young personal assistant John Colville (“Jock”), Churchill’s teenaged daughter Mary, and his daughter-in-law, Mary. New material Larson mines for his narrative include an unpublished memoir by Colville, who was in his early 20s, as well as other personal diaries of ordinary Brits. The details on their everyday activities, aspirations, and romantic lives helps me understand much better how the Brit’s could sustain the desperate prospects of their nation and daily threats from bombing in this period. Korda in his account of the Battle of Britain covered how some Brits would keep golfing during an air raid, which was a mystery to me. Now I comprehend better Mandel’s dictum that “survival is not enough” in her post-apocalyptic tale, “Station Eleven.” Such understanding is well worth bearing in mind during the current pandemic.

This book was provided by the publisher for review through the Netgalley program.
Profile Image for Chris.
Author 38 books11.4k followers
February 5, 2023
Another wonderful, deep dive by Erik Larson into one moment in history: in this case, it is the Nazi blitz on London in 1940 and 1941, as seen mostly (but not entirely) from the perspective of Winston Churchill, his family, and his leadership team. Illuminating, page-turning, and -- even if you know the basics of the story -- fascinating.
Profile Image for Tammy.
523 reviews438 followers
January 7, 2020
Who was Winston Churchill? He was irascible, mischievous, mercurial, politician extraordinaire, an iconic statesman, brilliant orator, prone to eccentric sartorial choices during his personal time, husband, father, and father-in-law. Most importantly, he was a strong and decisive leader. The Blitz occurred during his first year as Prime Minister and he united the British people as they faced the most serious threat to freedom. Larson’s book provides a singular and superior perspective of the man, his challenges, inner circle, family life, and fight against Hitler. Given the polarization present in America this book underscores the need for a unifying President and Commander-in Chief today.
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