Review of “Hero of The Empire” by Candice Millard

This book, subtitled “The Boer War, a Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill” is a history of Winston Churchill’s early life, with a focus on the years 1899-1900. It was during this time that Churchill traveled as a journalist to the Boer War in South Africa, ended up a prisoner, and effected a daring escape.

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Churchill believed that he was destined for power and fame. In fact, his self-confidence and belief in his special destiny were quite remarkable. It is true he came from a powerful family; his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, had served as Secretary of State for India and later Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House of Commons. His mother, Jennie Churchill, was considered to be one of the most beautiful and influential women of her time. But the extent of Churchill’s belief in his singularity was still astounding. As just one of many examples, while taking part in 1897 Siege of Malakand in colonial British India’s North West Frontier Province, he wrote his mother he wasn’t worried about bullets: “I do not believe the Gods would create so potent a being as myself for so prosaic an ending.”

Churchill in 1899 (age 24)

Churchill in 1899 (age 24)

What he wanted most though, was to gain a reputation for personal courage, and by all accounts, he consistently acquitted himself well in that respect. As Millard writes: “Although Churchill had been called many things – opportunist, braggart, blowhard – no one had ever questioned his bravery.” He didn’t have much of a chance to evince it however until the Second Boer War broke out in South Africa in October of 1899.

The Boers had lived in the region relatively unmolested until they discovered diamonds and gold. The area was previously occupied by the San, Khoikhoi, Xhosa, and Zulu peoples. When the Dutch and German Huguenots arrived, later known collectively as Boers, their diseases wiped out a large number of the natives. The whites thought the surviving native people only suitable for slavery. The British had outlawed slavery; although they believed whites to be superior to darker races, and that these darker races might merit abuse and social scorn, they drew the line at enslaving them outright.

South Africa at the time of the Second Boer War

South Africa at the time of the Second Boer War

But the Boers persisted in doing what they wanted, and thus the British became convinced that the “insolent” Boers must be curbed. Churchill in particular had argued that “war was the only answer.” [Whether the British umbrage was over the outrage of slavery or over the outrage that the Boers, rather than the British, had control of the gold and diamonds is not entirely clarified. It seems as if it were a bit of both.]

When Churchill arrived in South Africa, he gushed over the land: “All Nature smiles, and here at last is a land where white men may rule and prosper.” Although, as Millard points out, “the white men Churchill had in mind for ruling and prospering in South Africa were certainly not the Boers . . . ”

Nevertheless, she reports:

“. . . the [Boers] had had the same rush of desire and deep sense of entitlement when they first laid eyes on Natal. Since the earliest days of the war, both the Boers and the British had held an unshakable belief in the righteousness of their cause and the unworthiness of their enemy. Neither group, however, had given a moment’s thought or would have cared if they had, to the fact that the land over which they were fighting did not belong to either one of them.”

On November 15, 1899, a month after Churchill arrived in South Africa, champing at the bit to see action, he joined a reconnaissance mission on an armored train. Louis Botha and his Boers successfully attacked the train, and took some sixty captives, including Churchill.

General Louis Botha

General Louis Botha

Although the officers, with Churchill among them, were housed in surprisingly good accommodations, Churchill could not bear not being the master of his own fate, and became obsessed with escaping. He was supposed to be a part of a group of three escapees, but after Churchill climbed over the fence, the others had no opportunity to join him. Thus he was on his own, with hardly any food and not much of a plan.

In spite of these negative odds, the incredible luck he had always experienced continued to favor him, and the author details how Churchill traversed the 300 miles from Pretoria to freedom in what is now Mozambique. She manages to outline the journey in a way that is full of suspense and excitement, even though we know the outcome.

Churchill's Wanted Poster

Churchill’s Wanted Poster

Discussion: It’s hard to warm up to Churchill. He was spoiled and full of a sense of entitlement, both from being born to a rich noble family and just from being a white male. He insisted that whites were “a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race,” and thus believed deeply and ardently in Britain’s right to rule over others. His confidence and “chutzpah” knew few bounds.

Yet he also had many admirable qualities, and this book in particular highlights his fortitude, and how he proved himself to be “resilient, resourceful and, even in the face of extreme danger, utterly unruffled.” The book also provides a good analysis of the situation in South Africa and the Second Boer War.

The hardcover edition includes maps and photos.

Evaluation: This is a very entertaining, informative, and perhaps lesser-known (at least in the U.S.) story about someone considered to be one of the great leaders of the 20th Century.

Rating: 4/5

Published in hardcover by Doubleday, a division of Penguin Random House, 2016

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

Simon Vance performs up to his usual impeccable standards, and is especially convincing when he speaks in the voice of Winston Churchill.

Published unabridged on 8 CDs (10 1/2 listening hours) by Penguin Random House, 2016

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Review of “The Problem with Forever” by Jennifer L. Armentrout

This book for young adults begins with Mallory and Rider growing up in the same foster home in the Baltimore area with two very abusive parents. Rider, while only six months older than Mallory, always acted as her protector: hiding her, advising her not to make a sound, and taking the blows that otherwise might have landed on Mallory. He read The Velveteen Rabbit to her when she was scared, and he promised he would be there for her “for forever.” But when Mallory was 12, she ended up in the hospital and got adopted by two doctors who had cared for her. She thought she would never see Rider again.

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After years of home schooling and lots of therapy, Mallory, now almost 18, decided she was ready to try public school for her senior year of high school. She still hardly spoke, having been conditioned to be as quiet as possible. But she knew she had to get over it to get on with her life.

Her first day of school, she is stunned when Rider walks into one of her classes. Mallory discovers that Rider is the same in many ways: he is kind, and has an unshakable protective instinct. But he also has no expectations of respect by anyone, including himself. Rider is also shocked to see Mallory, and in spite of having a girlfriend, Paige, he and Mallory fall into InstaLove.

Rider thinks Mallory still needs his protection, but actually, it turns out he is even more stuck in the past than Mallory. Will the past pull them down, or can they learn to focus on the future instead of the past? Can love make them, like the velveteen rabbit, “real,” in spite of all the damage that has been done to them?

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Discussion: This book has much appealing about it, but also much that is, well, a bit much. First, some criticisms:

To some extent, the author parades a checklist of issues confronting the characters that borders on the excessive. There are mean girls – and yes, where else does this manifest itself the most but in those two nightmare locations, by the lockers and in the cafeteria? Mallory’s best friend struggles with a disease that is about to change her life for the worst (although that plot line is kind of dropped). We also have drugs, gangs, cultural and class conflicts, self-esteem problems, the broken foster care system, adoption problems, to have sex or not to have sex, and more. Most are handled well, but it does seem a bit extreme and exhortative.

The characterization is mixed. Rider is adorable and quite likable, but so nearly perfect – smart, brave, smart, and talented – that the revelation of his flaws revealed in the end doesn’t ring entirely true. The character of Mallory is not consistent. She talks fine at home and has a best friend through home schooling with whom she can communicate normally. Yet otherwise she is close to mute. Nevertheless, she has a bit of a miraculous recovery from the beginning of the book to the end, as the author embraces the now very popular “Pretty Woman” trope of who is rescuing whom.

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On the positive side, the romance is very charming, and even heart-warming. There are some good messages about gratitude and kindness, while still having the courage to live your own dreams rather than being entirely other-directed. The author also spends some time on the often neglected subject of regarding bad things as positives, for the lessons they teach and for the way they highlight by contrast the good things.

Evaluation: I enjoyed this story in spite of some of the criticisms I had. In fact, I liked it enough to wish the “Epilogue” would be expanded into a second book.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Harlequin Teen, 2016

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Review of “Moonglow” by Michael Chabon

Moonglow is a novel that is written to sound as if it were a memoir about the life of the author’s late grandfather. Through the vignettes that the grandfather related over the last two weeks of his life, we learn what happened during his lifetime and how he felt about it. But this book is not meant to be entirely truthful; as Chabon writes in an Author’s Note preceding the book:

“In preparing this memoir, I have stuck to facts except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it.”

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Thus, he claims, it is his ““first faux-memoir novel.” He also declared in an interview about the book:

“It is an attempt to explain an enigmatic advertisement I found in a copy of an issue of Esquire magazine in 1958 for Chabon Scientific Company that sold a model rocket. This memoir is the fictional history behind that advertisement to explain it.”

In previous books, Michael Chabon has proven to be a master of the meticulously wrought phrase. In his Pulitzer Prize winning book The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, for example, his evocation of New York life in the 1930’s was absolutely rhapsodic. I didn’t feel that this book rose to that level, although Chabon adroitly captures the subtleties of the grandfather’s life in a panorama that spans World War II, marriage to his wife (presumably Chabon’s grandmother), the post-war race for scientific hegemony, the ways in which the grandfather spent his retirement, and finally, his deathbed conversations with his grandson in 1989.

It is both a chronicle of an individual life and of the broader era in which that life was lived.

Evaluation: Some of the themes Chabon has used before reappear in this book, such as of the impotency of men in the face of evil, the appeal of storytelling in reshaping memory, the ways in which imagination can help make reality endurable, and the redemptive power of love.

Yet, although Chabon conjures this grandfather’s life so vividly, the story just did not engage me that much on an emotional level. Nor did the author wow me, as in the past, with his magical flights of prose.

I thought this was a good book, but because this author has written some great books, I found it disappointing.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2016

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President’s Day Kid Lit Review of “Presidents of the United States”

This thin volume, touted as “backpack-friendly,” contains a short overview of all 45 presidents of the United States, through and including Donald Trump.

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Each entry has facts in brief, a time line, and key historical dates.

In terms of content, I found nothing significant missing that would be appropriate for the intended audience of 8-12 (although it seemed to me that the blatant omission of why Clinton was impeached would only raise more questions).

My main reaction to this book was: why would any kid with computer access want this book instead of, say, checking Wikipedia or Google for the same information? Of course if a child did not have any access, or any frequent access, to online resources, this book would indeed be valuable.

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But in addition, I found it not so interesting. There was nothing there to grab me; no entertaining trivia or statistics (such as, perhaps, how many presidents were named John or in which states were the most presidents born). There are so many fun facts that could have been included, like who was the first president to use a telephone or drive a car; who was the shortest or tallest? Which president went for a swim almost every day in the Potomac River without any clothes? How many presidents died on the Fourth of July and who were they? How many presidents were related to one another? Even if the author had included relevant political cartoons pertaining to each president, it might have added some unusual interest, and made it more appealing to kids.

But I do like the handy size, and I liked the balanced nature of the write-ups.

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Evaluation: If you have a young child who cannot for any reason access the internet easily, this reference guide could be very useful.

Published by Time Inc. Books, 2017

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Black History Month Kid Lit Review of “Master George’s People: George Washington, His Slaves, & His Revolutionary Transformation by Marfé Ferguson Delano & the Mount Vernon Staff

This is a very good book for grades five and up about the lives of slaves on George Washington’s plantation, Mount Vernon, and how Washington’s views on slavery evolved over the years.

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Washington left voluminous papers at the time of his death, including his letters to farm managers at Mount Vernon while he was away – first fighting the Revolutionary War, and later serving as the nation’s first president.

He called his slaves “my people,” and told his managers he expected “that my people . . . be at their work as soon as it is light, work ‘till it is dark, and be diligent while they are at it.” He not only used slaves to do all the menial work of taking care of what eventually grew to 8,000 acres and a large house with constant visitors, but a number of them were skilled artisans as well.

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Washington was a hard worker himself, but of course his life was his own to choose. He fed and clothed his slaves and took care of them in sickness, but expected in exchange “such labor as they ought to render.” Moreover, they received no more than the bare minimum, per Washington’s orders:

“It is not my wish or desire that my Negroes should have an ounce of meal more, nor less, than is sufficient to feed them plentifully.”

Since “plentifully” wasn’t usually enough, they were allowed to grow vegetables and sell items they made in their “free” time to buy more.

In addition, most married slaves were not able to live in the same place as their spouses; Washington had other farms, and housed them where they were assigned to do work. They generally used their one day off to walk the many miles necessary to see their partners. At age 11, children began work training, and at 14 they were assigned to adult duties.

Although Washington himself was not known to be physically abusive, this was not always true of his overseers. After one reported to Washington that he whipped a female slave for being “impudent,” Washington wrote back “Your treatment of Charlotte was very proper,” adding that “if she, or any other of the servants will not do their duty by fair means, or are impertinent, correction … must be administered.”

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Occasionally, Washington’s slaves ran off. The author reports that between 1759 and 1799, at least 47 slaves ran away. She conjectures that more might have left had they not felt bound to Mount Vernon by strong family ties to other slaves. Washington “spared no expense” trying to track them down. He considered their behavior to be acts of betrayal and ingratitude.


In spite of all of this, over time Washington began to see slavery in a new light. Several of his close associates, including the Marquis de Lafayette and John Laurens, were avid abolitionists. When the Revolutionary Army began to take black soldiers, Washington got to see blacks from a different perspective. And a young African-born slave and poet named Phillis Wheatley sent a paean to him that impressed him greatly.

Eventually he decided to free those slaves that he could upon Martha’s death. (He could not free them at the time of his own death since some would revert to the estate of Martha’s family, the Custis estate, per “dower law.” Also, he did not want to break up the families of his own slaves who had intermarried with such “dower” slaves.) In addition, he stipulated in his will that slaves too old and sick to work were to be “comfortably fed and clothed by my heirs while they live.”

George Washington

George Washington

Washington’s relative benevolence was in stark contrast with most other Founding Fathers, including of course Thomas Jefferson, the author of the words “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The book is illustrated with photos by Lori Epstein, pictures of costumed reenactors, and reproductions of portraits and drawings from the era.

The book also contains a chronology, bibliography, and list of sources at the end.

Rating: 4/5

Published by the National Geographic Society, 2013

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