What to Read Next (No. 220): WWII on the home front
Happy Friday, readers!
Since my presidential reading challenge wrapped up in early 2021, I’ve taken quite a break from big history books. There’ve been a few here and there, but I’ve read more fiction in the last year than any year prior.
After reading a few great history books lately (Midnight at Chernobyl and Empire of Pain, especially), my brain felt ready for some intellectual vigor again.
So I picked up two fantastic books about the home front in World War II — one focused on London and one focused on Washington, DC. I loved both of them and I’m pretty sure one of ‘em will find its way into my year-end top 10.
Let’s get to it, and as always, let me know what you’re reading and enjoying these days!
The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson
Churchill is one of the most written-about figures in world history, so I’m understandably skeptical regarding any new book about him. But Larson, as he’s done throughout his career (Devil in the White City, Dead Wake, etc.), proves that sometimes it’s more about how you frame and tell a story than the details of that story.
Storytelling is the great under-appreciated skill that sets history books apart. In The Splendid and the Vile, published in early 2020, Larson tells the unforgettable tale of London during the German Blitz of 1940-1941.
For the better part of a year, German bombers thrashed English cities night after night, killing thousands, maiming scores more, and setting cities ablaze across the country.
In London, the Churchill family was in the center of it, taking part in blackouts and sleeping in underground shelters, only departing the city on weekends:
Winston was leading every aspect of the war
Clementine (wife) was supporting him as best she could
Randolph (son) was excelling at messing up his life and marriage
Mary (daughter), just eighteen, was trying to live the life on a young woman with the world ahead of her
The structure and framing was particularly interesting and compelling, with Larson utilizing short chapters, told from different points of view (Churchill, Mary, German leaders, etc.), over the course of a single year — Churchill’s first year as Prime Minister, in fact.
The writing is top-notch, the storytelling is second-to-none, and the structure makes its 500 pages incredibly compelling and readable. The Splendid and the Vile is an easy 5-star rating for me and one of my favorite books in a long time.
No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the Home Front in World War II by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Goodwin is as good of a storyteller as there is in the history business. She weaves great writing with compelling narrative structure with probing psychological insights to craft some of the best books you’ll ever read, including No Ordinary Time, which won 1995’s Pulitzer for history.
There’s been a lot written about FDR. He’s almost always among the top few presidents when you look at historian’s rankings. I certainly understand his presidential and leadership qualities, but he’s never come across as very likable to me.
FDR pursued a number of intimate relationships (some physical, some emotional) with women who were not his wife and his moral sense was a bit wobbly in regards to policy decisions. Goodwin herself wrote that Order 9066, which imprisoned thousands of Japanese Americans, was “brutal,” “ill-advised,” racist, and among the most grievous human rights abuses in presidential history.
Seeing FDR up close and personal on the home front during World War II actually solidified this picture I have of him. He was always incredibly shrewd, but never warm.
Eleanor, who gets almost equal space in the page count, is someone who I didn’t know as much about going into No Ordinary Time. While she wasn’t exactly a warm and fuzzy person either, it’s only because she worked tirelessly to help those in need, whether Jewish refugees from Europe or Black Americans fighting against military discrimination. She was, without a doubt, her husband’s moral compass — as much as she could be, at least.
Regardless of how healthy their marriage ever was, Franklin and Eleanor had a remarkable political partnership. He gave her a platform; she gave him a figurative slap on the cheek when he needed it.
Here’s what I enjoyed most about the book: Goodwin gives as much time and space to the “off” hours as she does the meetings, policies, and wartime decision making. We get wonderful insights about how relaxing evenings were spent (and how they were prioritized!), about Franklin and Eleanor’s relationships with their five adult children, about the relational drama between the numerous important people who visited (Churchill, especially) and lived at the White House for periods of time during WWII — for years, in some cases.
I gave this one 4.5 stars. Highly recommended reading for fans of history. It’s not quite perfect, but it’s close.
That’s all for me this week. Thanks so much for the time and inbox space — I deeply appreciate it.