Books: The Last Lion Vol. 3, Defender of the Realm

If you ever sought to research Winston Churchill, you at least examined William Manchester’s The Last Lion Vol. 1 (Visions of Glory) and Vol. 2 (Alone). Authors have an interesting time writing biographies of Churchill, because the old bulldog offered his own version. Whether you can believe Winston gives you the whole truth and nothing but the truth, which you should at least question, he could out-prose almost anyone. Truest words he ever said: “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.”

There was to be a Vol. 3 (Defender of the Realm) in the early 2000s, but Manchester’s health failed before he could complete the work. He passed in 2004, a tremendous loss to the art of historical biography. During his final illness, Manchester asked journalist and friend Paul Reid to complete the work. Interesting choice: Reid was a newspaper reporter who had never authored a book. He had all Manchester’s notes to work with, but that’s much like a pretty good college baseball player yanked from alma mater’s dugout and marched up to the plate in a major league playoff game with men on base.

Having waited for this for ten years, you might say I was ardent to start reading.

I’m about halfway through, just after the start of Barbarossa (Hitler’s June 1941 invasion of the USSR) and Operation Crusader (Auchinleck’s Western Desert offensive). While I like most of it, I see some weaknesses. Manchester chose Reid for his writing talent rather than his historical immersion, and it shows. I’ve noted a few side stories worthy of exploration, not generally known to most non-historians and WWII buffs, which Reid does not mention–yet which were directly pertinent to Churchill’s life and prime ministry. Manchester got what he wanted, though, for Reid is a capable writer and doesn’t shield us from his subject’s weaknesses.

The word on why it took this long is the combination of Manchester’s semi-legible scrawled notes, the sheer volume of the work undertaken, and Reid’s non-historical orientation. Considering what he went through in order to do this, I have to respect what Reid accomplished. I find that article fair in that Reid did not hew slavishly to all Manchester’s decidedly pro-Churchill stances, and despite discovering the depth of the sea only through repeated dives into it, kept at it until he finished the job.

Definitely good biography. I think those who insisted on having the first two books in hardcover will be happy.

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