As much as I can remember from my high school history classes, Winston Churchill was a great leader who was integral to saving Britain from defeat at the hands of Hitler’s Nazi war machine. He provided the necessary change of leadership so that the government, and the nation as a whole, could make the switch from appeasing Hitler under Neville Chamberlain to actively fighting the Third Reich. However, the man was much more complicated than this, and his story cannot be so easily summarized into those above sentences. Michael Dobbs, in his historical novel Never Surrender: a Novel of Winston Churchill, conveys the complexity of the man and the times.
Dobbs shows that Churchill was not a popular man in the political establishment, using terms such as “political exile” to convey how little support Churchill had in the House of Commons shortly before he became Prime Minister. He tells how Churchill did not have enough friends to even fill his cabinet, and so had to fill it with his enemies. As the novel continues, you will see that Churchill is not just fighting Hitler; Churchill also is fighting his cabinet, his king, memories of his father, and, at times, swelling popular resolve towards armistice. It is only through a story such as Dobbs’ that you can really understand the challenges that Churchill had to face in his first 26 days, the entire scope of this book.
Unlike most histories, which become vague tales of broad topics, the focus of this novel is very short: the three weeks from when Churchill became Prime Minister on May 10, 1940, to the end of the retreat of British and French forces at Dunkirk, June 4, 1940. Dobbs has combed through historical records and biographies, and from it has emerged with characters, some fictional and some not, that help convey the story. But the amazing thing that Dobbs has done is that in creating a fictional piece of work, he has been able to preserve an amazing amount of truth, including relationships between Churchill and his ministers, who are all accurately depicted. Only one character in the main storyline, Ruth Mueller, an informal adviser of Churchill who allows for Churchill to get in the mind of Hitler, is entirely fictional.
While an academic purest might cringe at the thought of an author undergoing so much research into the life of a man only to create a novel rather than a non-fictional biography, I think the form of this history is what makes it so enjoyable. Because Dobbs has turned this story into a novel, he has been able to construct a dialog that carries on throughout the book. Dobbs has given actual words to the characters—even in the most private meetings between political rivals—based off of what he knows of their personalities and views on the war. While the words he gives to the characters are many times not accurate verbatim, they do represent what we know about the historical figures very well.
This dialog makes the book a real page turner; even though we have the benefit of knowing the end to the evacuation at Dunkirk and that the war ends in our favor, I cannot describe the suspense I felt in reading the final pages of the book. We know that Churchill eventually was able to unite the country with him, but through these three weeks the government and the nation were far from united, and through the novel Dobbs shows us the building pressure put onto Churchill and how much he personally risked for his country. I could not help but feel tremendously worried that he would fail, even though my history tells me he succeeded. For this amazing suspense that Dobbs creates, I must say that he is a true master at his craft.