Saturday, August 22, 2020

The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson

What is the last book that kept you up too late at night?  The Splendid and the Vile had me up too late last week trying to finish it.   Although it is a non-fiction history book, it read like a thriller and I wanted to know how it ended. 

The Splendid and the Vile is the story of the London Blitz, the Churchill family, and London’s defiance of Nazi Germany.  The book delves into not only the politics of the times and the brutality of the war, but it also delves into the personal lives of Churchill’s family and friends.  It was an interesting entire picture of the one pivotal year in history.

Erik Larson is a fantastic non-fiction author.  I have previously read and enjoyed The Devil in the White City and Thunderstruck.  I like how his books are immensely readable.  They read like fiction but are non-fiction.  I learned so many interesting things in this book.  But by also writing about the personal lives of Churchill, family, and friends, I found myself laughing at times, and struck with horror at other times.  I felt for them and their trials and tribulations.  The chapters were short which I prefer and also included German perspectives at the time. 

I didn’t realize the Germans defeated the French line and invaded France almost immediately after Churchill became the prime minister.  The book had you feeling dread as you realized that the Germans were making their way through France at a much faster rate than anyone had anticipated.  How would they get their soldiers back to England? How will they save themselves from invasion?  How would they arm themselves and make aircraft to stave off the impending invasion?  I loved how Churchill found the best person for the job in one of his friends to get aircraft manufactured . . . and hidden around the country.

One thing I realized over and over again when I read this book was how Churchill was the perfect leader for his time.  He was able to gather the best people around him to get the work done and he was able to keep the hope up in the people of England that they could be victorious.  He traveled to bombed out areas and met personally with those impacted.  He had empathy and felt their pain. He also worked slowly, but surely on Franklin Roosevelt to get him vested in England’s cause as he realized they couldn’t win in the long run without help from the United States.  He definitely had eccentric behavior that was humorous, but he was a great leader during very trying times.  I wish we could have such a leader.

Churchill’s wife Clementine was the perfect partner who helped him to host events and wasn’t afraid to tell him how she felt about things.  She also made a personal tour of bomb shelters and noted what they needed for updates, with specific care for sanitation.  As an environmental engineer, I thought this section was fascinating, but I also loved as a wife, that the had such a great partnership that Clementine could do these things on her own, report back to Winston, and he could get improvements through.

There were certain episodes in the book that I just can’t get out of my mind.  Like a singer that was running late and got to his night club right on time to be bombed and killed.  Or the love affairs that sprang up between assorted people living through harrowing times.

I somehow had no idea that Rudolph Hess flew from Germany and crash landed in Scotland to try to make a peace treaty.  I had heard of him but had no idea about this episode and what ultimately happened to him.  This would make a great story on its own or even better, an alternative fictional story where he succeeds.

Favorite Quotes:
“No one had any doubt that the bombers would come.”

“Whatever Winston’s shortcomings, he seems to be the man for the occasion.  His spirit is indomitable and even if France and England should be lost, I feel like he would carry on the crusade himself with a band of privateers.”

“Here, as in other speeches, Churchill demonstrated a striking trait:  his knack for making people feel loftier, stronger, and above all, more courageous.”

“Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.”

“Afterward, as Churchill, Clementine, and the others emerged on the steps of the university, a large crowd surged forward, cheering.  And at that instant, in a singular moment of meteorological synchronicity, the sun broke through the clouds.”

Overall, The Splendid and the Vile is non-fiction at it’s finest and most thrilling.  It’s a story of humanity also at it’s greatest with strong leadership and a people willing to face long odds to keep their country free.  I loved it.

Book Source:   Purchased from


  1. This sounds like an intense book, Laura. I'm glad you liked it, and will definitely keep an eye out for this book. Excellent, thoughtful review!

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  3. I like Erik Larson's writing a lot and am looking forward to reading this one. :)

  4. Sounds great! I really must read some Larson sooner rather than later. Thanks for such a tempting review.