Hero of the Empire (a book review)

Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill, a name synonymous with World War II, cigars, and the occasional Doctor Who episode. I realized when I picked up this book that I didn’t know much else about him. I’ve visited Westminster Abbey and seen the memorial stone (he’s buried elsewhere) and I’ve seen the statue in Parliament Square. But these sights didn’t conjure up much beyond his role in WWII. So, when I saw Candice Millard’s book, subtitled “The Boer War, a Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill,” I thought I needed to check that out.

There are a great many books about Churchill; I could have chosen from more than a few. But I really enjoyed a previous book by this author called The River of Doubt, about Theodore Roosevelt’s journey through the Amazon. She has a narrative style that avoids being too much of a dry run through history and focuses on very specific events important to her subject. Winston Churchill’s exploits in South Africa during the Boer war seemed like the perfect vehicle for her style of storytelling.

Hero of the Empire isn’t a straightforward adventure story, though. The author gets to the heart of why these events were so important to Churchill, and even to England, by asking the questions of who Churchill was at this point in his young life, and why he ended up in South Africa in the first place – why he wanted so desperately to be there. She asks what it meant to the people immediately surrounding him, including the Boers themselves, and what it meant to a whole country. It’s this perspective that gives the story its impetus, propelling it forward with meaning and not just as a re-counting of a series of events.

If that sounds like it’s dry where I claimed it wasn’t, readers can rest assured that author answers these questions by showing, not by telling. She goes through Churchill’s adventures in India, and his attempt at politics after leaving the army and eventually going to South Africa as a war correspondent. Through all of it he is headstrong and sometimes incredibly arrogant. He can also be an elitist, privileged snob. These traits defined his actions, which I found fascinating, and help to build the author’s case and lend dimension to a legendary figure.

I can’t say enough about Candace Millard’s writing. The book is evenly paced, informative, and exciting. If you want to dig deep into the minutiae of Churchill’s life, you won’t find it here. Don’t let me mislead you, you’ll get a lot, including details about the Boers and their impact on South Africa, but it’s all events in service of the overarching story. There is lengthy bibliography at the end demonstrating the author’s in-depth research. But I found her judicious use of the material a huge plus.

One more thing, if you’ve been willing to read this far. Despite the fact that this isn’t a “What teens are reading now” novel, I think book would be excellent for the high school age.

See, no matter how much Churchill wanted to shape his own destiny, he always found himself at the mercy of everyone around him. The more control he sought, the less he had. Few events were of his making. Yet, he never stops doing everything he can to get to that place he believes he should be. That belief in himself drives him from one moment to the next. You would think that would be worth something.

Did I mention that Winston Churchill is memorialized in Westminster Abbey?

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