Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Alphabet in Historical Fiction:W is for Winston Churchill

You would think that by the deadline to put up our posts for the ABC of Historical Fiction, I would have some idea of what I wanted to post about, but apparently not. To be fair, I have had a few different ideas, but in the end I decided to go with the Winston Churchill series by Michael Dobbs after hearing that November 30 was Winston's birthday!

The reason why I even had this as one of the options I was thinking about is that I was looking through the list of series I have been reading and couldn't work out why I still had this series showing as not having been finished. Turns out I have read the first, third and fourth books in the series but had somehow missed the second one. That book is now waiting for me to go and pick it up from the library so that this time I can say for sure that the series is finished.

So here are the reviews for the three books in the series that I have read:

Winston's War is a masterful blending of imagination and compelling fact that places the reader at the right hand of the most momentous events in our history.

Saturday 1 October 1938. Two men meet. One is elderly, the other in his twenties. One will become the most revered man of his time, and the other known as the greatest of traitors.

Winston Churchill met Guy Burgess at a moment when the world was about to explode. Now in his astonishing new novel, Michael Dobbs throws brilliant fresh light upon Churchill's relationship with the Soviet spy and the twenty months of conspiracy, chance and outright treachery that were to propel Churchill from outcast to messiah and change the course of history.
Winston's War opens in October 1938. Winston Churchill is a man on the outer with his political companions, Hitler has just annexed part of Czechoslovakia and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain has just returned home from talks with the Fuhrer declaring that he has obtained 'peace with honour, peace for our times'.

We are given several different view points throughout the novel, starting with Churchill and Chamberlain and their political allies as well as the barber who goes about the business of cutting and shaving whilst the very important men go about their business almost oblivious to the barber.

Another is from Guy Burgess, a man who worked as a journalist for the BBC, and whose paths crossed with those of Churchill on several occasions. I don't want to give too much away about Burgess, but he lived a very notorious life, and as a reader you are never quite sure where his loyalties lie, other than to himself. He is a degenerate character but completely key to this fictionalisation of the events in the twenty month period covered by the novel.

One of the other perspectives is from a post mistress in Bournemouth. I must confess that as I read the novel I wasn't sure about this final storyline as I couldn't see how it connected to the main plot, but in the end the author I didn't need to be worried due to a couple of different events. Whilst many of the interconnections between the various characters are obvious others are more subtle, but in the end the connections are there.

As much as this is a novel about the momentum towards and the beginning of WWII, including leaving the people of Poland and Czechoslovakia to defend themselves despite promised assistance, it is also a novel about the political machinations of the British parliament. There are shady deals, immoral behaviour, spies, betrayal, blackmail and misdirection to the British people through the newspapers of the day. The constant battle to maintain power and to keep political enemies out of positions of power dominates, even when those enemies might be parliamentary colleagues from your own party! One of the more interesting examples is around a Scottish MP, Duchess of Atholl, Katharine Stewart-Murray, who vehemently opposed Chamberlain's policy of appeasement and who found herself forced out of Parliament.

One of the most striking things about this novel for me was the reminder of how much there is that is not necessarily commonly known even when we are only a couple of generations away from the events, particularly for those of us who do not profess to be scholars of a particular period. For example, some of the most enduring images of WWII are the bombed out homes in London from the Blitz, or say the evacuation from Dunkirk, the damage done in France, Belgium and Holland. It is easy to forget that from the time that war was declared against Germany, there were many months where there was very little actual fighting, although there was plenty of political infighting going on.

I should say that this book was not an easy read. At times it was dense with the political machinations and plotting, more political thriller than my more standard historical fiction maybe, but it was definitely worth taking the time to read.

As anyone who has read my blog for any length of time will probably be aware, I really, really do not like to read a series out of order. It may be something of a surprise then to find that this is the third book in the Winston Churchill series by Michael Dobbs that I have read, despite the fact that it is the first book in the series. I have now read books 1, 2 and 4. The reason this happened is that I was originally given review copies of both Never Surrender and Churchill's Triumph from Sourcebooks a couple of years ago. I always intended to go back and read the other books in the series, but every time I borrowed this book from the library I had to take it back unread. I was determined that this time, I was going to read it, and now I have. I should confess though it is overdue by more than a week at the library so that I could finally read it! The third book is on request and I hope to read it soon.

This stunning historical novel brings you deep inside Winston Churchill's mind and heart as he becomes Prime Minister and takes on the terrifying challenge of halting Hitler's murderous invasion of France, Holland and Belgium with only his wits and his magnificent words. Only his courage stands between the people of the British Isles and advancing enemy armies as they drive his retreating soldiers onto the beaches of Dunkirk and into the English Channel. You will live at Churchill's side as he deals with his own feelings of inadequacy while contending with his fellow ministers, who plot to throw him out of office. And you will be the fly on the wall of history as he matches wits with Hitler in the most crucial battlefield of all, the battlefield of the mind.

Whilst I have read a number of books set in WWII where the main characters interact with many of the famous real life figures, this is the first time that I remember reading a book where the main characters are the real life historical figures. One of the advantages of this is that even though I have not read much about Churchill, for example, I very much already had a picture in my mind of the character, of what he looked like and yes, that also means some preconceptions about some of his characteristics.

This book is actually the second book in a series of four that concentrates on a number of incidents during the war to give us a picture of the man who led Britain during the darkest days of WWII. This book concentrates on the days just after Churchill finally became Prime Minister, and then follows the events as they unfold over the next three weeks, a period which includes the evacuation at Dunkirk, and the famous speech that was given in the House of Commons following the evacuation:

We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air. We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing-grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender!"

There were a number of things within the book which surprised me. I did not know that Churchill was so universally disliked by his political opponents, and yet it seemed that the tenaciousness that made him a challenging personal opponent was the very thing that Britain as a country needed to lead them against the deadly foe that was Hitler.

Don't get me wrong...this book is not some rosy eyed look at Churchill. This is a man who is portrayed as thinking nothing of giving a briefing to his staff whilst in the bath. A man who wanted to attack at all cost despite the disobedience of his generals, when in the end, it was only in retreating that the British even managed to live on to fight another day.

Whilst it is primarily a book about Churchill and WWII it is also a book about fathers and sons. Churchill seems haunted by his father - his political life and his personal relationship with him - always trying to act in such a way as to possibly exceed his father's seemingly low expectations for him.

In addition, threaded throughout the story, there is also a relationship between another father and son. Don Chichester is a non combatant stationed initially in Belgium, working in the Royal Ambulance Corp. As Churchill makes decisions as to where the troops must go, Don is the human face that portrays the effect of those decisions. He had joined up as a non-combatant, much to the shame of his vicar father, Henry, and the two have parted barely on speaking terms. Truth be told, this storyline was the weaker of the two major plotlines, but it did enable us to be part of the defense of Calais, the mad scramble to get to Dunkirk, and then to be on the beaches of Dunkirk waiting to see if the Navy was going to be able to rescue the thousands of troops there, who were basically sitting targets for the German fighter pilots.

I very nearly said that I didn't want to review this one when I was offered it last year, but definitely am glad that I said yes. Not long ago I was offered the fourth book in this series (which I will review in the next few days), so I thought I should hurry up and read this one, despite the fact that it isn't the first book! I am definitely planning to pick up the other books to fill in the gaps. Thanks to Sourcebooks for providing me with a copy of this book.

World War II is about to end when the world's three most powerful men gather at Yalta in the Soviet Crimea: an idealistic and exhausted Franklin Roosevelt, a dyspeptic and feisty Winston Churchill and a brutal Joseph Stalin. Once proud allies, they will lie and cheat and deceive each other. And, while doing so, they will change both the map of Europe and its destiny.

In this riveting historical novel, you become a fly on the wall of history. For those fatal eight days at Yalta, you are privy to the heart and mind of England's prime minister, who hopes he has enough strength to negotiate with the Russian dictator and enough whiskey to last the week. Carrying the burden of history, he becomes Europe's conscience, when, to save the peace agreed to at Yalta, he must decide whether or not to commit a devastating act of betrayal.
It's hard to tell from the number of reviews that I have been posting, but I am actually reading. In the last week or so I have read two books by Michael Dobbs about Winston Churchill. The first was Never Surrender (the second book in the Winston Churchill series) and then pretty much straight after I finished that book I read this one, which is the fourth book in the series. I really can't stand reading series out of order, but once I had finished this one it was off to the library to pick up the first book in the series so that I can finish it off!

The author follows a similar set up as he did in Never Surrender - taking a short period of time and examining the events, and then interweaving those historical events with the events taking place in the life of a fictional character.

In this case, the event that is being focused on is the Yalta Conference that was held between 4 and 11 February 1945 in the Crimea. The conference was a meeting between Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill where decisions were made that affected the fate of millions of lives across Europe, and influenced the political landscape for many, many years.

The three most powerful world leaders are portrayed as all being very much concerned with their own agendas - for the ailing Roosevelt his main objective is to get the United Nations up and running, for Churchill it is try and prevent the march of communism across all of Europe and for Stalin it is gain as much land as he possibly can.

There are secret meetings, lavish and drunken dinners, spying on each other, and grand showmanship as each of the leaders tries to meet their own goals, and at times, it seems as though those ideals are worth a great deal more than the lives of the people that will be affected.

Churchill is also aware that the British star is fading a little, in terms of power and prestige in the eyes of the world. Whilst they can hold their head up in terms of their actions in World War II, in hindsight, it is clear that the seeds were being planted for the Cold War where the US and the Soviet Union were the super powers.

The fictional character is a young Polish man, who is trying to escape from the Soviet Union where a man can get arrested for no real reason at all. He has taken on a dead man's identity, and as we see him try to find a new life in the west, we are also privy to the events that are taking place in Poland, as firstly the German Army leaves the war devastated country and as the Soviet 'liberators' move in to take their place. Let's just say that neither army appears to have treated the locals particularly well.

Where this book did lose a little focus in my opinion was in the very beginning and very end where the novel moved forward in setting approximately twenty years, and Churchill, now a very old man, is taking a cruise in the Mediterranean and meets a ghost from the past. Whilst the initial drama is provided through a Churchill family argument, this initial theme seemed to get lost somewhat through the rest of the book. Maybe it was a carry on from the events in the third book. I guess I will only tell when I get around to reading the third book.

Once again this was another very interesting read, featuring some of the most famous historical figures from WWII, an era that I already find fascinating.

Sourcebooks are about to rerelease this book in the US. Thanks to them for the review copy.



  1. Wonderful survey. I too am always amazed at how unpopular historical figures were in their own time that we now think are great. Lincoln was just loathed by a lot of people, and even Washington had many detractors. Churchill's case is even more interesting to me because we have so much more access to documents, for example, on who should bear the blame for Gallipoli. And the influence of parents, as you mention - so interesting! I don't think enough attention is paid to that. Chernow's recent bio of Washington really focuses on the effect his cold, judgmental mother had on his character. So many great figures had cold parents - makes you wonder...

  2. I just got a book in the mail about Winston Churchill, called Mr. Chartwell. I admit to knowing almost nothing about Churchill, but your reviews have kind of set a framework for my upcoming read. Thanks for the enlightenment!

  3. I would be interested in reading more about Churchill myself. I read so many WWII books and of course, he is mentioned in many of them. He was larger than life figure in history.



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