Did you ever put down a book after finishing it and find yourself so engaged in the world it created that you end up rereading it right away, just to see how the author managed such magic? That’s what happened to me with The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson.
A nonfiction bestselling author who writes with novelistic flair, his tale of the account of the first year of “The Blitz” in London is mesmerizing! Maybe the fact that I’m reading this story in the midst of a pandemic makes the story of how England survived ruthless bombardment by Nazi Germany even more compelling. Knowing that it all ends is helpful! Among Larson’s strategies:
He narrows his scope: Vast tomes have been written about Winston Churchill and his heroic role in World War II, including his own multi-volume memoir. Instead of plowing the same ground, Larson narrows his field by focusing on the first year of the London Blitz. This allows him to dive deeply into an intense slice of history without getting lost.
He creates a constellation of characters: Like planets revolving around the sun, Larson brings to life a vivid cast of players who surrounded Winston Churchill and Adolph Hitler. Shifting artfully among the different stories of these minor players, Larson uses them like subplots in a novel. This not only creates drama, it also keeps his tale moving briskly.
He compares and contrasts: By contrasting events happening in England with those in Germany, Larson creates a stark contrast between these two worlds and then shows them colliding. He deftly compares and contrasts “the splendid” and “the vile,” so that we as readers can feel the tension and conflict that inevitably result.
He interweaves the historic and the personal: While huge events are pending, Larson keeps the reader engaged by intentionally focusing on personal dramas unfolding against the backdrop of the war. We see Churchill’s son Randolph running up debt, his young daughter Mary enjoying London’s nightlife, and a spicy smattering of romantic entanglements.
He creates a sense of immediacy: By artfully employing colorful details and diary entries, Larson brings the reader into the middle of the action. He creates a strong sense of place, whether we are eavesdropping on a conference at 10 Downing Street or a weekend gathering of war counselors at a country mansion.
He varies his chapters: Some chapters are fairly long, but many are only a few pages; one critical point is highlighted in a chapter that’s only half a page. By controlling sections of his story in this way, Larson controls its pace. He takes whatever time he needs to describe a military advancement, Winston Churchill’s antics, or Mary Churchill nightclubbing.
What a gift riveting reads are! And how much we can learn from them as we all write on!
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