I love reading. So does my father. Unfortunately, he has trouble staying awake when he picks up a book. So I was surprised when he said that for Christmas, he wanted a long book about history.
“I’d finish this one,” he said. “I wouldn’t fall asleep halfway through. It’s about Winston Churchill. It’s called Hero of the Empire.”
So I ordered the book on Amazon. When it arrived, I considered keeping it for myself. It was beautiful–I’m a sucker for pretty books. And the book-flap summary pulled me in.
After waiting for my dad to finish it (he didn’t), I finally read it for myself. Here are my thoughts about Candice Millard’s Hero of the Empire.
Throughout his youth, Winston Churchill was convinced that he was destined for greatness. Hero of the Empire tells of his rise to fame: from a British Army officer in India and Sudan, to a journalist in Cuba, to a correspondent reporting on the Boer War in South Africa. Two weeks after his arrival in South Africa, Churchill was taken prisoner after he tried to defend an English armored train from the Boers. Follow Churchill’s daring escape from prison as he crosses hundreds of mile of enemy territory–with nothing but a few pounds, four bars of chocolate, and a biscuit.
If history bored you to death in school–pick up Hero of the Empire and experience everything you missed out on.
I don’t want to say that Candice Millard makes history come alive. History isn’t dead and uninteresting. But she makes you feel like you’re right there in the 1890s through her vivid descriptions, rich research, and graceful prose. It’s a treat to read her writing. Every sentence flows clearly, and the whole book is approachable and readable without losing any complexity.
But even better than the execution is the content. Candice Millard gives historical context for the historical events, so readers come away feeling like experts, not only on the Boer War, but also on the history of colonialism and imperialism that led up to it. She describes the sights, sounds, and smells of everywhere the story takes you, from the halls of Parliament to the South African bush. The action scenes (yes, there are action scenes in a history book!) are electrifying and perfectly paced. Stories of people intertwine with stories of events, and the book is full of quotes from primary sources and the major players in the narrative. The result is a story that is thrilling and action-packed, but with a strong character-driven streak.
Like any good history book, Hero of the Empire is accurate and unbiased. The Boer War is a complex and upsetting topic, and Millard doesn’t shy away from showing the faults of both the British and the Boers. She neither condemns nor praises Churchill as a person–instead, she shows his strengths and weakness, his merits and flaws.
Hero of the Empire is part-history lesson, part-Victorian gossip column, part-adventure, and all-around amazing. It shows a complete picture of Winston Churchill’s early life, the Boer War, and late Victorian Britain. I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoys learning about interesting things–which should be everyone.
9.5/10 (which is the highest ranking I give out.)
Have you read Hero of the Empire? If not, does it interest you? Let me know in comments!