Tuesday, October 18, 2016
Signal Watch Reads: Hero of the Empire - The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill (by Candice Millard, 2016 - audiobook)
The study of history in practice can be maddening if the bar you hold up is trying to read up on every single thing anyone ever did before this very moment. If that's your standard, then I'm a little behind in developing my all encompassing eye into the past. Example: I'm a publicly educated kid from the burbs who focused on North America in obtaining his history undergrad degree. Aside from the bare-bone basics, I know very, very little about Winston Churchill, but I figured I had to start somewhere. But, why not with a book by a terrific author and starting at the beginning?
I'd previously read Candice Millard's two prior full-length books, The River of Doubt and Destiny of the Republic, and I can honestly say they were some of my favorite books of the last decade. Both books covered events which usually appear as footnotes or brief interludes in other historical retellings, diversions in the telling of longer, more expansive stories. Yet, Millard managed to craft one of the most harrowing stories of real-life adventure you're likely to read in the Theodore Roosevelt starring The River of Doubt, and in Destiny of the Republic, she sets out to set you weeping about the unjust passing of President James Garfield, shot by an assassin and victim of the limitations of his times, just on the precipice of modern knowledge we now take for granted.
I would argue that, by zeroing in on a specific time, place and people, she was able to say more about those people with a greater degree of eloquence - using historical fact, reconstructed timelines, letters and post-facto primary sources - to shed light on moments and giants of our history.
Here in her third book, Millard demonstrates why she's becoming a favorite of many more readers than just myself. Whether you're a history buff who's already schlepped your way through a number of Churchill biographies or - like yours truly - you find yourself embarrassingly ignorant in regards to the biography of one of the modern West's greatest leaders, Millard's spun Churchill's life as a young man into a narrative in the mold of epic adventure, all while reporting the facts.
It doesn't hurt that Millard's prose themselves move with an energy of a page turner while still relying upon those aforementioned sources. She knows how to build up characters and scenarios as fate places them in contact with one another, understanding past is prologue to any story and background informs character.
In Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill (2016), Millard traces Churchill's lineage in brief, but paints his larger-than-life parents in full portrait, setting a scene for the sort of young man Churchill was leading up to the Boer War. Moreover, she uses illustrative examples, often in the writer's own words, to create the setting for the British Empire on the edge of over-expansion. In a Pre-Great War world, men saw war as romantic and glorious, the only way to prove the mettle of a young gentleman of ambition. Officers rode horses while carrying brightly colored flags even as weapons were developing rapidly that made them easy targets and could tear apart a man with ease. Beyond the obtaining of ribbons and medals, young men sought the stories they would be able to relate and which would bring them fame.
Churchill is a young man of perhaps not incomparable ambition, but he also does not stand by custom at all times, does not remain silent upon his opinions. His desire for glory is not delivered on subtle social cues, instead he tends to speak his mind, pursue that which he wants. Luckily, he's mostly able to succeed, but his manner wins him few friends and favors. He has served in India with distinction, run for office (and lost), and is a bit adrift when the beating of the drum for war in South Africa begins to bear it's head.
Failing to secure a role as an officer in the army being sent to South Africa to confront the Dutch-descended Boers (later, the white Afrikaners of South Africa), Churchill leverages his well-respected skill as a writer and takes a job as a correspondent for The Morning Post. In South Africa, he eventually runs afoul of the Boers, and in a display of tremendous will and bravery, earns a reputation as a hero despite his civilian status and the fact he was captured.
I hesitate to share much more than this in relation to the plot. You can read the subtitle of the book and piece the rest together. But Millard's retelling, depiction of the players - from Churchill to his mother, to his fellow Englishmen at war, to the Boers, to the mood back in England - paints a picture that tells more about the events than a simple retelling of facts and dates.
While the book does not have the narrative advantage of its two predecessors (our protagonist does not die within the timeline of the book, giving this book a far more open-ended conclusion), it does begin to present an image of the man who would ascend to help preserve England in her darkest hours. And, of course, in contextualizing the events of the Second Boer War, connects the dots of European colonialism in South Africa and the lead up to the events that would define the 2oth Century.
Read by Simon Vance, the audiobook moves quickly, Vance providing convincing voices for his characters, including Churchill himself. I'm unclear as to what I missed from the print edition, but it was clear what was quote and passage from source.