Finest Hour 141, Winter 2008-09
Books, Arts & Curiosities – Churchill as a Literary Character
By Michael McMenamin
Mr. McMenamin is the co-author with Curt Zoller of Becoming Winston Churchill: The Untold Story of Young Winston and his American Mentor, a trade paperback of which will be published by Enigma Books in 2009.
The premise of this new feature is simple: A periodic review of historical novels and thrillers where Churchill appears as a character. After all, it is important that he be portrayed accurately, even if the story is otherwise improbable.
Each review will ask two questions: (1) Is Churchill portrayed accurately and as something more than a plot device? (2) Is the book otherwise worth reading? Two questions, answered with one to three stars, are Portrayal of Churchill (★= inaccurate; ★★= accurate; ★★★= very good) and Worth reading (★= probably not; ★★=good read; ★★★= really good read. So, unless a book receives at least four stars from these two questions, don’t waste your time.
In future columns, I will review one post-2000 book and one published before 2000. I encourage readers to send me [[email protected]] their own selections, for good or ill. Use the rating system above and tell me why you gave the rankings you did. If I review a book you referred, I’ll mention that and give you credit in the column, along with whether I agree with your rankings.
Dreamers of the Day, by Mary Doria Russell (Random House, 2008).
Portrayal ★★★ Worth reading ★★★
Russell is a critically acclaimed writer, mostly of science fiction, who has written a delightful novel. Agnes Shanklin is a 40-year-old spinster school teacher from Cleveland who, after World War I, takes a trip of a lifetime to the Holy Land and arrives in Egypt just as the Cairo Peace Conference begins. She already knows T.E. Lawrence (wonderfully and accurately rendered) who introduces her to a condescending Gertrude Bell and, of course, Churchill. She also meets a fictional German spy with whom she has a brief affair.
Agnes is with Churchill on a number of adventures, including the Gaza riots and his visit to Jerusalem. She accompanies WSC on a painting expedition which is taken straight from Inspector Thomson’s memoirs as well as Painting as a Pastime. Winston has a lot of time on stage and much dialogue. His puckish sense of humor comes through on many occasions. It is one of the best fictional portrayals of Churchill I have ever read. In the famous camel party photo (this issue, page 13), Agnes is “the figure at the far left side of the photo.” Russell also gives an accurate rendition of the ins and outs of the peace conference which resulted in modern Iraq, the consequences of which are with us still. Read the book. You won’t be disappointed.
Pearl Harbor, by Newt Gingrich and William Forstchen (St. Martin’s Press, hardcover 2007, trade paperback, 2008).
Portrayal ★★ Worth reading ★★
Here is a poor man’s Winds of War. It spans the period 1934 to 7 December 1941 and, like Herman Wouk’s masterful work, it covers that period with characters—British, Japanese and American —who are involved in great events.
The book’s British character, Cecil Stanford, taught English at the Japanese Naval Academy on Hiroshima Bay, and it is primarily through his eyes that we see Churchill, who appears in two chapters: one in 1936 at Chartwell where WSC suggests Stanford become a correspondent in the Far East and serve as a source of information for him on events there; one at the Cabinet War Rooms in October 1941, where Stanford delivers a report on events in Japan. There is also a brief scene between Roosevelt and Churchill on 12 August 1941 which the writers unfortunately place at “Argentina Bay,” Newfoundland. I know it’s only a typo and they meant Argentia the town; but “Argentia Bay” would be wrong too, because it was “Placentia Bay”.
While I give Gingrich and Co. two stars for the accuracy of their portrayal of Churchill, I do so grudgingly. Little things destroy verisimilitude. WSC drank Johhny Walker, not single malt; he would never have poured “two good fingers of scotch” for a guest and “nearly twice as much for himself”; and he wouldn’t have said, if a guest refused ice, “Good man, can’t see why anyone would water down a proper single malt.” Churchill’s study at Chartwell is inaccurately described as having “overstuffed leather chairs” and a “typical painting of battle” over the fire-place.
Mostly, though, Churchill just doesn’t come to life here, as he does in Dreamers of the Day. The dialogue doesn’t sound like WSC, who is only a prop serving to bring out information from Stanford on Japan that the authors want us to have. He says “my friend” so often he begins to sound like John McCain. I even have doubts that Churchill would have met Stanford in the bunker in 1941.
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed the book. Other historical characters appear and U.S. Ambassador to Japan Joseph Grew is one who is well-realized. So are several Japanese characters, Admiral Yamamoto among them, who allow us to see the situation from Japan’s point of view. But don’t buy the book for its portrayal of Churchill. It’s not worth it.