Wednesday, December 22nd, 2010

Churchill's EmpireChurchill’s Empire by Richard Toye
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like most Americans (I would think), I never knew much about Winston Churchill. I knew he kept Europe from falling to Germany before America finally decided to get involved. I knew the speech from after the Battle of Dunkirk. And I’ve seen pictures of him with his fingers forming a V.

That was really about it. But I knew he was an important figure in modern history. And his life is on the long list of things I really needed to learn more about before I can really consider myself "educated".

Well, Churchill’s Empire is both a great and a terrible place to start learning about the man.

It’s great because it’s a well-written and engrossing read. At times, the prose seems almost novel-like and the author’s selection of quotations from letters and diaries and recollections are well-chosen to spice up a dry historical account with dry British witticism instead. For the most part, Toye avoids a boring clinical account of history and instead focuses on the personalities who were involved and making tough decisions at the time. Ultimately, my praise here focuses on the fact that this is an eminently readable history book for someone like me who has never been a huge fan of history.

But it’s also a terrible book to use to initially learn anything about Churchill because it focuses in on him through the lens of the British Empire. This is hardly a fault, really. After all, the book’s cover uses big yellow letters to tell you that it will be doing just that. And it does a superb job of it. But with only this book about him under my belt, I feel like I don’t have a wide-enough picture of the man. It’s my fault and not the author’s.

Further, by telling Churchill’s story as it revolved around the Empire, the book has no choice but to focus rather strongly on Churchill’s racism. Of course, many great statesmen throughout the centuries have been strong racists. But, Toye puts Churchill’s in sharp relieve with many of his contemporaries whose ideas were evolving and changing with the times while Churchill’s own views of skin color stayed solidly Victorian.

Especially towards the end of his life and carrer in the late 1950s, his intense dislike for people with black and brown skins becomes incredibly distasteful as he should clearly be able to see that he is on the wrong side of history but refuses to release those prejudices. It’s enough to make me not want to read anymore about him, so I feel my conceptions of Churchill will start and end with the way he was shaped by the Empire.

And again, this is no fault of the book or of its author. This is an honest look at the man, well told and (judging by the fact that 40% of the book is notes) well researched. It satisfies its topic and title well and admirably and it’s only fault might be the it wasn’t the book I needed to read.

But, still, I’m happy to have read it. It’s an excellent example of what dry history books can be and other writers should aspire to its heights.

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