The Last Lion: Defender of the Realm
Despite some noteworthy shortcomings, Paul Reid's examination of the last third of Churchill's life gives us the British statesman in all his robust complexity.
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But the book is far longer than necessary, and even readers with a deep interest in the subject may feel overwhelmed. Partly, this is the result of the enormous amount of trivia that finds its way into the text. It really does not matter that “the Parker ‘51’ pen – the latest in writing tools – sold out at Gimbels in New York” or that “'Walpurgisnacht’ is a traditional festival in Europe in which witches are said to await the arrival of spring... [and that] peasants lit bonfires intended to keep at bay demons who roamed the landscape.” Even some material that is related to the subject is extraneous. Do we really need to know that Churchill named his Breguet watch (“the timepiece of choice for ... most of Europe’s royal swells”) “the turnip”?Skip to next paragraph
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The book also provides far more detail on the purely military aspects of World War II, such as the movement of individual units, than is necessary. For long stretches of text, Churchill is barely mentioned. As if to underscore the length of the book, several individual chapters are almost 200 pages long.
While Reid arguably provides far more detail about World War II than necessary, he seems to slight Churchill’s post-war career and his success in leading the Conservatives back to power. This was a dramatic and formative era, and some of Churchill’s efforts, like his desire to see (West) Germany play an important role in Europe and his plan to establish an effective European community as a bulwark against Soviet expansionism, merit far more attention than they receive.
There are a few factual errors: US Senator Russell Long was not from Alabama, the “Book of Revelations” is really the “Book of Revelation,” and Churchill was the first person, not the second, to be awarded honorary US citizenship by Congress. Moreover, there are a couple of places, such as the sinking of the Bismarck and the saturation bombing of Dresden, where Reid’s analysis would be challenged by other historians. But given the size and length of the book, these are small matters, and some of them will undoubtedly be corrected in the next edition.
In the end, despite some noteworthy shortcomings, Reid shows us Churchill in all his robust complexity: generous, humorous, imaginative, energetic but also mercurial, impatient, insensitive, and overbearing. He praises his leadership, but does not shy away from criticizing it when appropriate. This book lacks the narrative elegance of the first two volumes, but that is not surprising because few authors can equal Manchester’s story-telling ability. Nonetheless, it stands as a valuable and much-welcome conclusion to the project that William Manchester began some three decades ago.
Terry Hartle is senior vice president of government relations for the American Council on Education.