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Monday, May 22, 2017

What I’m Reading: Hero of the Empire

Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill
It’s Monday, but until I catch up on my personal reading reviews, there is no Call to Action for anyone! You can read past ones here though.

I know I also promised to pair all of my upcoming reviews and this is a review of only 1 book, but that is because I want to pair this review of Candice Millard's Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill with her other 2 books. Why? Because her body of work, taken together illustrates on of the principles of RA service that I am constantly hitting home-- people are looking to match books based on their particular feel, not based on the plot, or to but it another way, we need to make our matches based on appeal NOT subject heading. With Nonfiction this becomes more tricky so I am using this review to hammer that point home. I will explain more below, but first here is the summary:
At age twenty-four, Winston Churchill was utterly convinced it was his destiny to become prime minister of England one day, despite the fact he had just lost his first election campaign for Parliament. He believed that to achieve his goal he must do something spectacular on the battlefield. Despite deliberately putting himself in extreme danger as a British Army officer in colonial wars in India and Sudan, and as a journalist covering a Cuban uprising against the Spanish, glory and fame had eluded him.  
Churchill arrived in South Africa in 1899, valet and crates of vintage wine in tow, there to cover the brutal colonial war the British were fighting with Boer rebels. But just two weeks after his arrival, the soldiers he was accompanying on an armored train were ambushed, and Churchill was taken prisoner. Remarkably, he pulled off a daring escape--but then had to traverse hundreds of miles of enemy territory, alone, with nothing but a crumpled wad of cash, four slabs of chocolate, and his wits to guide him.  
The story of his escape is incredible enough, but then Churchill enlisted, returned to South Africa, fought in several battles, and ultimately liberated the men with whom he had been imprisoned.  
Churchill would later remark that this period, -could I have seen my future, was to lay the foundations of my later life.- Millard spins an epic story of bravery, savagery, and chance encounters with a cast of historical characters--including Rudyard Kipling, Lord Kitchener, and Mohandas Gandhi--with whom he would later share the world stage. But Hero of the Empire is more than an adventure story, for the lessons Churchill took from the Boer War would profoundly affect 20th century history.
Appeal: Let’s start with the appeal of Winston Churchill before we move into Millard’s own appeal as a writer. I will admit to being both a Millard fan, and after my New Year's trip to London and visiting the Churchill War Rooms [by the way one of the best museums I have ever been to, and I have been to hundreds at this point], a Churchill fan. [In my 14 year old daughter's word, "He was a savage."] However even if you were not a fan of either before reading this book, you will be after.

Churchill was a dynamic man from the start of his life. Yes we know of his bravery and leadership during WWII, but the picture of this man who was arrogant and egotistical but also kind; who was brilliant, rich and privileged, but also brave; a man who always put service to his country first. To see all of these complications in one short volume was not only informative, but it was fun to read. 

We saw the man who became the legend here. That was fun in and of itself.

But as you cab see I am already moving beyond the subject of the story and am hinting at the biggest appeal, how Millard writes her books. 

Here is a comment about Millard's writing style from notes on my book group's discussion of River of Doubt in 2008.
Everyone agreed that Millard's writing style was excellent. One member mentioned how much she liked the "slice of life" narrative device. Too many times, she explained, great people's lives are "shoe-horned" into a book; here, she enjoyed how much we learned about Roosevelt through this one event in his life. The shorter time frame allowed for more depth into the character of the man himself.
This is why I enjoy all of her books but this is also why she it takes her so long to write each one. She takes a moment in time surrounding a seminal event in a “great man’s” life and tells the complete story around that moment. She gives you the context from every possible angle, pulling in side stories that you think might not mean anything, but with her 360 degree approach to historical research-- they most certainly do matter. But through all of this detail, Millard still manages to create a book that moves briskly. The story and it’s “characters” take over. Her hand in the story disappears. Of course I know she is writing it, but she does so in a way where the action and the actors take control and lead us, the reader through the book. We have fun and learn quite a bit but without any artifice of the author putting herself in the way. She stops back and lets history both teach and entertain on its own.

In this specific case, pairing this great man with a writing style that looked at just a moment in his life AND add to it all of the other things I learned about while being treated to an exciting adventure story, was highly satisfying. You cannot deny the adventure here. Look we know Churchill will not die. We know he makes it, but it is still an exciting tale of war, daring escape, and dangerous travels to freedom. You are on the edge of your seat waiting to see him get to safety.

Millard also taught me about the Boer War, the diamond industry, British colonial politics at the turn of the 20th Century, and the roots of modern South African. In the process, I now see some of the major world events of the 20th Century in a more nuanced and informed light. Yes I had fun reading this book and I learned quite a bit about a lot of things, things that actually have relevance to my life. Millard did that with the way she writes. That bolded line, that’s how you hand sell any Millard book. It is the soundbite review you say to a potential reader before going further. For many patrons, that one sentence might be all it takes.

For more about Millard's other books, click here for more by me on The River of Doubt and here for my review of Destiny of the Republic and here for the book discussion report on that title too

The overall point I want to make here is that while Churchill will be a draw for some readers, many who didn’t know much about him, will still love this book for the way it makes history come alive, the way it connects things you didn’t think mattered to your own life, and the way Millard captures you and happily takes you on a historical journal with her. 

Note on the Audio Narration: Hero of the Empire was narrated by the incomparable Simon Vance. For many that will be enough for them to listen; however, here is the AudioFile review [via NoveList] with a bit more appeal detail: 
Simon Vance's full-throttle narration is one of the many delights in this rousing biography of Winston Churchill's youthful escapades in the Boer War. Yes, the future statesman WAS a colossal egoist blessed with complete self-confidence, but, trust me, he was also funny, smart, talented, brave, good-hearted, and an all-together boon companion. He's also lucky in Vance, who reads the future statesman's boastful letters home with a straight face, which allows the audience to laugh, and with just the right hint of the Churchillian timbre. His interpretations of others, including Boer soldiers, Brits of all classes, and the odd American are equally well shaded. And when the adventure breaks out, as it often does, he breathlessly dodges bullets with the best of them. A.C.S. Winner of AudioFile Earphones Award  AudioFile 2016, Portland, Maine

Three Words That Describe This Book: Slice of Life biography, Compelling, Richly Detailed

Readalikes: In my previous mentions of Millard, I made these suggestions of other writers who take a similar approach to history as she does:

But with this title in particular, I couldnt stop thinking about Susan Orlean. Any of her books really, but in particular The Orchid Thief. The way both women capture something I didnt think I cared about and write what is a compelling adventure story filled with danger, drama, and lots of history and facts, its all just fascinating and fun. I feel like a more informed human citizen after reading these authors, but I also feel little guilty that I had so much fun while I learned.

Of course some may want to also read more about the Boer War or Churchill and for those I have left a link to a book on Goodreads to get your started. But I would venture that most who read and enjoy Millard, will want to read all of her books and others who write like her, regardless of the subject matter.

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