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


by Erik Larson

New York: Crown, 2020. Pp. xvi, 590. Map, biblio., index. $32.00. ISBN: 0385348711

Churchill, his Family, and his Circle under the Bombs

The events on the world stage from May of 1940 through June of 1941, roughly from the Fall of France through Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, when Britain “stood alone” against the Axis, defended as much by the oratory of Prime Minister Winston Churchill as by the arms of the Empire, have been told and retold so frequently, one would think it would be hard to find a fresh perspective. But in his newest book Erik Larson has managed to do just that.

Using the methodology of his award-wining 2011 book In the Garden of the Beasts, about life in Nazi-era Germany as experienced by U.S. Ambassador William Dodd and his family, Larson shows us the war during Churchill’s first year as Prime Minister through the experiences of the men and women in Churchill’s family, his cabinet, staff, friends, and others. At times it almost reads like a novel, rather than a history, but every statement and every incident recounted is based on memoirs, diaries, letters, official reports, transcripts, and the like. Naturally, the narrative centers around the Prime Minister and his family, a rambunctious group, none more so than Churchill himself, a man of many talents and remarkable idiosyncrasies. But beyond them, the book has a wonderful cast. So we see people at war, mostly Britons, but also others, from the highest ranking – notably Roosevelt, Hitler, and Stalin – to ordinary citizens.

Larson writes well, and manages to smoothly shift the scene from smoke filled cabinet room to flaming cockpit to cabaret, and from the front lines to the factory floor to the love nest, and more. He is particularly good at penning word portraits of the many characters in his tale, which help us to understand their actions and how they managed to cope with the dangers and stresses of war.

The Splendid and the Vile is an excellent read for anyone.



Note: The Splendid and the Vile is also available in audio- and e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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