The Splendid and the Vile

by Erik Larson

“Despite the doubts he had expressed to Inspector Thompson, Churchill brought to No. 10 Downing Street a naked confidence that under his leadership, Britain would win the war, even though any objective appraisal would have said he did not have a chance. Churchill knew that his challenge now was to make everyone else believe it, too – his countrymen, his commanders, his cabinet ministers, and most importantly, the American president, Franklin D. Roosevelt. From the very start, Churchill understood a fundamental truth about the war: that he could not win it without the eventual participation of the United States. Left to itself, he believed, Britain could endure and hold Germany at bay, but only the industrial might and manpower of America would ensure the final eradication of Hitler and National Socialism.”

Ratings & Reviews

Book Grade: B+

I am a huge fan of Larson’s writing and historical nonfiction. The Splendid and the Vile fits the bill for both, and is incredibly dense. It is not for the faint of heart and is jam packed with facts, quotes, and information. The personalities of the figures highlighted in the book are diverse – the regular Londoners who are facing regular bombings as well as the politicians who strategically try to make alliances, shore up supplies, and boost morale.

This makes the book much more engaging (I found myself connected to and rooting for different individuals over the course of the book), but also makes it more confusing. There are so many names to keep track of and the specifics can be a bit tricky at times. I appreciated the details that are so often overlooked by history books (for example, a BBC radio reporter gave a play-by-play of airplanes flying over the Cliffs of Dover and this both revitalized and horrified listeners), but there are a few portions that were a bit too fact-laden to flow easily.

This book is fascinating and brings Winston Churchill to life – his foibles and brilliant political strategy. It is a meaty read, and ideally suited to readers who are interested in military stories, WWII, British history, or historical nonfiction. There are definite lulls in the story, but it never reads like a textbook or boring research; rather it is fascinating and focused.

Movie Rating: PG

The Splendid and the Vile is a worthy read; much like other works of historical nonfiction, though, it does address the realities of events of the past. There are references to war, death, sex, and destruction, but the references are necessary to paint a picture of Churchill’s Britain during this era. The descriptions are not graphic, but are informative, and shouldn’t shock readers.

Given the nature of the story and the content, this book will be more appealing to an older reader who is a fan of Adult Crossover Nonfiction. There is nothing wholly objectionable as Larson takes care to write a historically authentic book that does not glamorize or embellish, but rather focuses on the details that made life what it was in the era.

Would I Buy This for My Library: Yes

This book is lengthy and might be daunting to some students, but by and large, it is a win for readers who are fascinated by history – especially that of WWII. It takes a unique angle and focuses on the character and leadership of Winston Churchill, but has enough additional details to capture the attention of readers who like a bit more of a personal connection instead of the historical aspect. The Splendid and the Vile is definitely an adult crossover book, so if that not ideal for your audience, then I would pass, but for most libraries, this will be a great text for readers and researchers.

Summary:

As Britain entered into WWII, it was led by a fearless, enigmatic, and steadfast leader – Winston Churchill. The portly prime minister did more in the first year of his office than many do in their entire political careers, and Erik Larson has crafted an engrossing and thoroughly detailed story of what his first year in the role was truly like.

Larson is known for his research and The Splendid and the Vile is no exception. Vignettes about major and minor figures in Britain’s war effort bring a human face to the triumphs and struggles of World War II. Details about the German perspective also flesh out this rich and engaging story. Moving beyond the epicenter of 10 Downing Street and into the nooks and crannies of London, this book emphasizes both the political strategy and the realities of everyday life during the war effort. This book is compelling and thorough and the perfect read for history buffs and political biographies alike.

Book Talk Questions:

  1. Winston Churchill had many quirks – as a leader and a person. Describe some of these and explain your thinking on how they impacted his image.
  2. What role did tea play in the war effort?
  3. Rationing was essential during the war. How did Churchill view rationing and was he able to stay within the limits established?
  4. What role did America play in Churchill’s wartime leadership and thinking? Give an example.
  5. What did you think of Mary Churchill? How does she evolve over the course of the book?
  6. Money plays a role in Churchill’s life (and the life of ordinary citizens). How does it factor in?

A Perfect Read for Fans Of…

  • My Heart is Filled with Joy: A Holocaust Story by Karen Treiger
  • Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
  • The Spies of Shilling Lane by Jennifer Ryan
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