Finest Hour 141, Winter 2008-09
A Life in Easily Readable Bits
Best Little Stories from the Life and Times of Winston Churchill, by C. Brian Kelly. Cumberland House, 420 pp. paperback, $16.95. Member price $13.60.
By Christopher H. Sterling
Dean Sterling teaches communications at The George Washington University.
The author of eight “Best Little Stories” books, a journalist and part-time teacher of news writing at the University of Virginia, Brian Kelly provides a great present for anyone (especially a young person) who’s just been introduced to Churchill, but can’t face the massive tomes on which more seasoned students rely. It’s a ready way of dipping into a gripping life, in a format made for picking up and putting down, just right for busy modern lives.
Arranged in chronological order and providing a glimpse of different aspects of Churchill’s story, the several dozen tales told here are based on a variety of sources (many listed in the back), but avoiding footnotes that are sometimes so off-putting to casual readers. Many quotes are identified in the text (Martin Gilbert is often cited). Based in part on Kelly’s series of lectures, sponsored by the University of Virginia, and delivered at Oxford in the summer of 2007, the readable stories incorporate a degree of familiarity (the subject is usually identified as “Winston”) that some readers may find odd. Kelly’s spouse, Ingrid Smyer-Kelly, provides a fifty-page informal biography of Lady Randolph, Churchill’s American mother (mistakenly identified as “Lady Churchill”). But the account is reliable, falling for none of the unproven and prurient stories that surround Lord and Lady Randolph.
For the most part, the book avoids typical Churchill pitfalls, thanks to the sources and people Kelly has relied upon, including The Churchill Centre and some of its authorities. While most of the stories concern Churchill himself, a few focus on such important figures as Clementine, American Ambassador Gilbert Winant, Lord Mountbatten, even Churchill’s wartime transport pilots. Some sections focus on places, such as a one-pager on the background of Ten Downing Street. Many stories are followed by an “additional note” which fills in details or provides further context.
Kelly writes well and to the point. His collection of stories is a fast and enjoyable read. While these pages may not offer new insights, providing a ready “point of entry” for newcomers to the Churchill story is service enough.