I have been on a Churchill binge recently. I have just finished The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson. Before that, I read the definitive Andrew Roberts biography Churchill: Walking with Destiny and Hero of the Empire about Churchill's time in South Africa by Candice Millard. Churchill is a gift to any halfway decent writer, as I discovered in writing my book about the end of World War II, Six Months in 1945: FDR, Stalin, Churchill, and Truman--from World War to Cold War. He is so colorful that it is hard not to make him interesting.
What sets Larson's book apart from others on the Blitz, and the first year of Churchill's premiership, is that he has skillfully weaved in the stories of other, lesser known characters, such as John Colville, his private secretary, and Mary Churchill, his daughter, into the narrative. In doing so, Larson not only tells a wonderful story, he makes the point that history is not just about the great and the powerful. In the shadow of history-making characters like Churchill and Roosevelt and Hitler and Stalin, ordinary life continues. People fall in love, struggle with their own personal demons, are happy or unhappy, laugh and cry.
Tolstoy understood this too, of course: it's pretty much the same formula he uses in War and Peace. It's also a formula I have used in my own books, including the latest, King Richard: Nixon and Watergate — an American tragedy. In Six Months in 1945, I devoted several paragraphs to describing the lack of toilets at the Yalta conference, which forced delegates to relieve themselves beneath a statue of Lenin in the garden of the tsar's summer retreat. Some readers criticized me for that, but that's real life, the way delegates to the Yalta conference experienced it at the time. As one of them remarked in his diary, the toilet situation was the second most discussed subject at Yalta after World War II itself.
So yes, I agree with Larson and Tolstoy that history is about the little people too...
Michael Dobbs is the author of seven books, including the best-selling One Minute to Midnight. His latest book, King Richard, is about Nixon and Watergate.