By the time Winston Churchill was 24 years old, he’d already written three books, fought in four wars on three continents, run for Parliament and become the best-paid journalist in Great Britain.
It would seem that the only direction for Churchill to go would be down. So, in a way, when he’s taken prisoner during the Boer War in South Africa, the reader might naturally assume the gig’s up for this guy.
But, no, even a reader who doesn’t belong to the enormous club of Churchill scholars knows that the man lived for 90 years, was England’s prime minister twice, was a decorated war hero and won the Nobel Prize in literature. Among other things.
Award-winning bestseller Candice Millard’s new book, “Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill,” doesn’t focus on the man Churchill became, but on the man he was at 24.
Millard, who lives in Leawood, is no stranger to writing about mythical men. Her first book, “The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey,” traced the former president’s treacherous exploration of an uncharted river through the Amazon.
Her second, “Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President,” was about a much less mythical man, President James A. Garfield. It illuminated a period of rapid change in the United States — politically, socially and scientifically. She paints Garfield as America’s darling; under her spell, his death breaks your heart.
Millard’s brilliant modus operandi is to identify a singular, little-explored event in a well-documented life. She then uses that very pointed story as a wedge that she drives into the person’s character, cracking it wide open in a manner usually reserved for fiction.
And so it is with her account of young Churchill. She doesn’t present him as a great statesman. Intellectually gifted, bossy, arrogant, ambitious, yes, but the hero of the world stage has yet to emerge. In fact, the book is about catching that hero in the act of emerging.
The story of his capture during the Boer War (1899-1902) is mentioned in many of the 12,000-plus books written on Churchill; it’s not an unknown incident. But Millard’s rendering of the story is fresh.
Through meticulous research of primary sources — see her acknowledgements and notes pages — she crafts historically accurate dramatic scenes that fill the senses.
It’s impossible not to feel the claustrophobia of capture when Churchill is detained in a corrugated-iron shed. Millard writes: “He heard the dry, crackling sound of paper at his feet and looked down to find that the floor was covered with old railway forms and account books, ripped and stained and piled at least four inches deep. Above him, in the raftered ceiling, a skylight blurred as the rain fell on it in a dull, heavy tapping.”
And it’s equally impossible not to hold your breath after his escape when he’s hiding just inches from two men in some bushes near the prison’s perimeter.
A “cat, tearing blindly through the underbrush, crashed into Churchill’s silent, crouching figure. Shocked, the cat ‘uttered a miaul of alarm’ and tore back out of the shrub, rattling the branches and making a tremendous racket as he went.”
After leaving the bushes, undiscovered of course, Churchill must find his way, alone, through 300 miles of enemy territory. He takes inventory of his pockets and “found that beyond £75, four slabs of melting chocolate and a crumbling biscuit they were empty.”
His odd supply list and his dangerous surroundings might have broken a lesser man. He did lose hope, but it didn’t break him. “ ‘When hope had departed,’ he wrote, ‘fear had gone as well.’ ”
This is the story of a hero who, through this one courageous act, rallies an entire nation at a time when it’s losing a war fought on foreign soil. Rather than roll into a ball, he quotes a leader of the French Revolution, aloud, bolstering his own spirit: “Toujours de l’audace.” Always more audacity.
Millard has no shortage of strengths as a writer, but particularly spectacular is her ability to make history and historical figures not only relatable, but absolutely relevant to contemporary readers.
Contact Anne Kniggendorf at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her @annekniggendorf.
“Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill” by Candice Millard (400 pages; Doubleday; $30)
More Candice Millard
Rainy Day Books and the National Churchill Museum present Candice Millard, Sept. 20 at 7 p.m. at Unity Temple on The Plaza, Sanctuary, 707 W 47th St. $30. Tickets can be purchased at the event or at rainydaybooks.com.