When author Erik Larson moved from Seattle to Manhattan a few years ago, he thought about how the September 11 attacks were a profoundly different experience for New Yorkers than they were for those who witnessed the horrors unfold from afar. His musings led him to think about another attack on a hometown — London during the Blitz of 1940-1941 — and how the locals might have endured it. The more Larson wondered about the impact of these assaults, especially on the newly minted prime minister, Winston Churchill, his family and his friends, the more he realized he had the topic for his next book.
“I…quickly came to realize that it is one thing to say ‘Carry On,’ quite another to do it,” he writes. And in The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, And Defiance During the Blitz, Larson paints a fresh portrait of Churchill in his first year as prime minister, showing readers how the cigar-chomping leader taught the British to carry on and be brave in a time of unspeakable horrors. Using diaries, archival documents, and once-secret intelligence reports that were recently released, Larson tells the story of this time in novelistic detail, illustrating the day-to-day experience of the British people, as recounted in part through Mass-Observation Diaries.
Larson said he didn’t know about Mass-Observation until he embarked upon this book, and I certainly didn’t know about it either until he brought it up. I jotted it down as he spoke, making a note to myself to look into it further. The backstory: Mass-Observation was an organization launched in Britain a couple of years before the war and it enlisted volunteers to keep daily diaries about their lives. The diarists were encouraged to be as specific as possible in their entries, and they were sometimes even given prompts to guide their daily accounts. The goal was to help sociologists better understand British life at that time. Larson deftly used these diaries to bring the thoughts, dreams and fears of ordinary Britons to life. Of all the things that kept me glued to this book this past weekend (and there were many, many things), I particularly enjoyed his deft use of these diaries.
One diarist wrote that if she had to spend her whole life with a man, she’d choose Neville Chamberlain, Churchill’s predecessor.
“But I think I would sooner have Mr. Churchill if there was a storm and I was shipwrecked,” she added.
She got her storm and her wish.
The morning after Larson spoke at the Carter Center last week, I got up at 5:30 a.m. to sift through the online database of Mass-Observation diaries, finding in it a treasure trove of people of different genders, ages, marital statuses and professions right at my fingertips. I thought about how amazing it was to have all this there, and wondered how many countries have done something just like it. This is the kind of stuff you want when you’re writing a book, and it’s the kind of stuff Larson always finds to make his magic. I really enjoyed The Splendid and the Vile; it unfolded like a movie. And I especially enjoyed meeting Erik Larson and hearing him talk about his craft.