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Erik Larson's Latest Book Focuses On Winston Churchill During The Blitz

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

One of today's acclaimed popular historians has taken on one of history's most acclaimed figures. Erik Larson wrote a book about Winston Churchill, the British prime minister whose inspiring speeches led the U.K. through World War II.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WINSTON CHURCHILL: 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.

INSKEEP: Larson's past books have often focused on less famous characters right at the edge of history, like an architect and a mass killer in Chicago or an ambassador to Nazi Germany. "The Splendid And The Vile" reconstructs one year of Winston Churchill's outsized life, his most famous year beginning in May 1940 when Churchill became prime minister just as a German attack loomed. Behind Churchill's inspiring speeches was an eccentric character. At times, he would lash out at his staff. He could be angry one moment and jolly the next. And in the midst of war, Larson says Churchill even had a playful side.

ERIK LARSON: At the prime minister country home Chequers, one evening, actually, after one of these fabulous dinners there, Churchill in his blue siren suit, which is a pale blue one-piece suit that made him, honestly, look like an Easter egg - in the siren suit but also in his flaming gold red dragon dressing gown, he picks up a Mannlicher with a bayonet. There is martial music playing on the gramophone, and he proceeds to do bayonet drills in front of all his guests in the great hall at Chequers.

INSKEEP: As one does.

LARSON: (Laughter) As one does, actually, yes.

INSKEEP: Larson says he wanted to reconstruct how the U.K. endured. Churchill became prime minister at a moment when Germany was about to carry out a prolonged and devastating aerial bombing campaign.

LARSON: Let's take September 7, 1940. September 7 is very nice and very warm. It's - temperatures in the 90s. The stores in Piccadilly are packed. People are in the parks, just sunning and so forth. Suddenly at teatime, the Luftwaffe arrives, and the bombs fall throughout the night. Diaries and so forth report the smell of cordite. And the most vivid thing that people saw during raids were these huge plumes of dust blossoming from destroyed buildings as they collapsed.

INSKEEP: And that's, like, a night. And then there's another night and another night.

LARSON: And another night and another night and another. Now, paradoxically, a certain element of the population, they found themselves becoming emboldened. For example, I talk about a young woman named Olivia Cockett who was a diarist for this wonderful organization called Mass Observation to just try to get a sense of what ordinary life was like in Britain, to produce a social anthropology of ourselves, as the organization put it. So the work comes along, and hundreds of these people keep - continued to keep their diaries. So Olivia Cockett is one of these people, and she describes this very compelling arc. Typically, raids began with incendiary bombs first. The point being to set fire to buildings and therefore provide a beacon for bombers to follow to drop high-explosive weapons. One of these incendiary bombs landed behind her house, and she was not going to have it. She put this incendiary bomb out. And in the wake of that, she was - she just felt suddenly completely emboldened. And that was her arc. She became bolder and bolder. At one point, she's walking with her lover during a raid and he shouts, get down, get down. And she says in her diary - she says, not in my new coat, I'm not.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: Don't want to mess up your new coat hiding in the bushes or something like that. How did Churchill keep people's spirits up during those 57 nights?

LARSON: That is part of the magic, I think, of Churchill. The fundamental element was that he was acutely aware of the power of symbolic acts. Symbolic acts - for example, walking among the homes that had been destroyed by bombers, talking to the public, making himself visible and being visibly moved. Symbolic acts, for example, when raids occurred, he would more than likely go to the roof of the nearest building to watch the raid. And he'd bring staff up to the roof and watch this thing unfold. And he made it known that this was happening - so a lot of little symbolic acts, and, of course, the speeches.

You know, the speeches were heroic, but also he was very aware that he also had to be - he had to provide a sober assessment of the reality. And I think that was very, very important. You know, it's one thing to say, oh, we're going to get through this. This is not going to be a problem. But, you know, you've got a populace that's just been through 57 nights of bombing and is now undergoing raids on a more extended period that are growing worse and worse and will continue through the following spring. You've got a populace that is rather prone to be skeptical and does not want to be told happy truths. But he had this way of balancing the happy truth with this absolute heroic conviction. He never indicated even an ounce of doubt as to what the ultimate victory was going to be.

INSKEEP: Never doubt, and yet in his speeches, he'll repeatedly say, I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. This is going to be awful. It's going to get a lot worse before it gets any better at all.

LARSON: Exactly. And yet that was very - that was exactly what he needed to say because people understood. They understood they had to steel themselves. Had he just said, you know, don't worry about it, this is a passing thing, you know, we've got this under control, I firmly believe it would not have helped, would not have worked.

INSKEEP: He seems almost like a superhuman figure. But did he seem that way to you after a long period of researching him?

LARSON: Do you know what? He actually did. Even though I'm aware of all the warts and all the flaws and all the funny scenes and so forth, I often found myself comparing myself to Churchill and always finding myself wanting. I would - honestly, I would talk to my wife and I'd say, you know, here's Churchill. He's dealing with this war, and he's able to just, like, entertain guests. He's able to write these incredible - to dictate these incredible speeches. And, you know, I was just - I was really awed much of the time. And yet also I found my awe actually in some ways amplified by the fact that he was just such a human interesting character and so smart.

INSKEEP: Erik Larson is the author of "The Splendid And The Vile," among many other books. Thanks very much.

LARSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.