Writing projects that don’t want to end can be hellish for writers. Winston Churchill’s advice to the British people during the London Blitz comes to mind: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” One way forward is to read great books about great strugglers, like The Splendid and the Vile. Thirty-six years ago, I began drafting a story that would evolve into Mortal Things, which launches on Tuesday, October 4. Writers, keep the faith.
Here’s my recent review about The Splendid and the Vile on Goodreads.
Will we ever tire of reading biographies of Winston Churchill? Probably not, especially when the likes of Erik Larson find his life worthy of scrutiny. The Splendid and the Vile examines only the first year of Churchill’s wartime term as British prime minister, but that’s enough for Larson to paint an incredibly vivid portrayal of the wartime leader, his immediate family members and associates, and of ordinary British life during the Battle of Britain.
Churchill’s policies and personality impacted the British in those fearful days, “making people feel loftier, stronger, and above all, more courageous.” (page 57)
Through one harrowing moment after the other, Larson keeps the reader right there in the middle of it all. A gifted writer tells a story well. This gifted writer tells multiple intertwined stories and makes the historical setting brutally and tenderly real. His storytelling is both cinematic and individual, urging the reader on to the next round of bombing, negotiating, or courting—finally leaving us a bit wistful that we must leave these characters and close the book.
The Splendid and the Vile centers on Churchill but pays attention to his fellow players on the world stage and to smaller figures in his daily life, an approach that creates a broad and deep human landscape. Larson’s judicious and effective use of wartime diaries (many of them were part of a government-supported effort to record the thoughts of its citizens) has much to do with the book’s rich portrayal of both featured individuals and of relatively anonymous British people.
In particular, Larson’s mining of the journals of Churchill’s daughter Mary and of the PM’s private secretary John Colville provide some of the book’s most engaging and illuminating personal threads. Their stories enhance the greater context, but Larson gives them their due as lives worthy of our attention.
“The life expectancy of a new member of a bomber crew was about two weeks” (page 374), yet Colville sought transfer to such a unit.
Larson’s focus on the romantic dreams of the lives concerned underlines the reality that even in the midst of hell on earth, people fall in love, crave sex, and do all the ordinary and silly things that we take for granted in peacetime.
Such attention to detail concerning the human spirit enriches the book, yet one aspect of human life goes barely addressed in this otherwise deeply and broadly rich portrait. For the most part, religious faith mattered for that generation. It made them see the world differently than we do in the secular West today. Not long after Churchill’s first wartime year ended, CS Lewis delivered his series of BBC talks about Christianity, which subsequently formed the basis for Mere Christianity. The Oxford professor had been requested by the BBC to give those talks. We can deduce a level of belief on the part of the book’s principals from occasional mentions of attendance at religious services, but mostly the book is quiet about personal religious faith.
Overall, this book delivers everything its publishers promise. Highly recommended.
Thanks for reading this post. If you like it, I hope you’ll follow me on Twitter @nedbachus, at nedbachus.com, and that you’ll Like the Facebook Page, Open Admissions.
Mortal Things, my novel, will be published October 4, and if you’d like to pre-order it, you can do it on the nedbachus.com website or at Tree of Life. If you’re in Philly, join us for the book launch at the Mermaid Inn TWO WEEKS FROM TODAY on October 4 at 7 PM. https://www.treeoflifetreeofjoy.com/mortal-things