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Alaska Commons Book Review: The Last Lion (Vol. 3)

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Book: The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm

Author(s): William Manchester and Paul Reid

Genre: Biography

Length:  1232 pages

Publication Date: November 6, 2012

Publisher: Little, Brown & Co.

 

“On June 21, 1940, the first day of summer, Winston Churchill was the most visible man in England.” So begins the conclusion to William Manchester’s epic three-volume profile The Last Lion, the story of Britain’s legendary Prime Minister.

Covering Churchill’s involvement in the Second World War up through his death in 1965, Defender of the Realm reveals the complex, heroic and notoriously irascible Churchill in great detail. Manchester has little trouble bringing the Great Man to life across more than 1,000 pages; the cigar-chomping, combative, fiery orator that Churchill was.

The book, first begun by Manchester in 1988, took over twenty-years to complete. Manchester –himself a veteran of WWII – had compiled more than 2,000 pages of notes and written about 100 pages before suffering two strokes. Realizing he would not be able to complete his magnum opus, he asked friend and journalist Paul Reid to complete it.

Where Churchill really comes to life in Manchester and Reid’s work is in the gentle touches of humanity: the Great Man stomping around his home during a German bombing run, wearing only a bathrobe and soldiers helmet; his love of poetry (Keats and Lord Byron) and ability to recite whole verses at the drop of a hat; his sharing a whiskey and soda with the flyboys of the Royal Air Force. It’s the little moments throughout the book that bring Churchill from a near-mythic figure to someone relatable but infinitely more interesting than the average mortal.

Like any good biography worth its salt – such as Edmund Morris’ three volume account of the life of Theodore Roosevelt – Manchester tells the story of not just his star actor, but of his life and times. The story of Churchill the man is told alongside the story of a nation at war. While the bulk of the book was researched during the end of the twentieth century, most of it was written in the shadow of 9/11. Any reader who remembers That Day will have no trouble sympathizing (maybe even empathizing) with the tale of the Britons who survived the German terror-bombing of London. As any reader will know, such connections pull us in and make history seem both relevant and slightly more urgent.

Defender of the Realm is panoramic in its view, but never forgets who the star of the show is. Manchester and Reid are not just giving a biographical sketch, they are telling a story. They set the stage then drop Churchill and his contemporaries onto it, letting them act and speak for themselves. “In the case of the greatest Englishman of the twentieth century, the importance of doing so is obvious,” Reid write.

And speak for himself Churchill does.

Jeremia Schrock holds a B.A. in History from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He writes a drinking column for the Alaska Commons and hosts a variety show on KSUA 91.5 FM. He enjoys whiskey, Formula 1 racing, and a bright color palette.

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