Candice Millard says that she doesn’t write “full biographies” of historical figures; rather, she delves into “moments of time that are powerful and illuminating” about that person. Millard, who previously has written about President James A. Garfield’s slow death in 1881 two months after being shot, and the future President Teddy Roosevelt’s expedition through the Amazon River basin in 1913–1914, has now crossed the Atlantic with her latest subject. Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill (Doubleday, Sept.) might be classified as nonfiction, but it reads like an action-adventure tale, with a swashbuckling hero performing amazing feats while evading the villains intent on capturing him. Millard says that, despite there being so many books about Churchill, not many people know of his heroism during the Second Boer War (1899–1902), when he was in his mid-20s. Captured and imprisoned in a former school in Pretoria in 1899, Churchill became a national hero in Britain after escaping and making his way 300 miles through the desert to safety at the British consulate in Portuguese South Africa. He then returned to Pretoria to rescue his imprisoned comrades.
Millard says that young Churchill’s adventures in the military, including the eight months he spent in South Africa, were a defining time for him and “shaped Winston Churchill into the person he would become,” a man of great self-confidence who is also the most popular British prime minister in history, a cigar-chomping, stalwart figure who led his country through WWII and kept the embattled nation’s spirits up with his public defiance of the Nazis.
Millard, a journalist who used to write for National Geographic, spent four years researching and writing about Churchill’s adventures in South Africa. Her research took her, of course, to Britain, where among other authorities on Churchill’s life and legacy, she spoke with his granddaughter, Celia Sandys. It also took her to South Africa, where she found traces of Churchill “everywhere,” including the same trapdoor inside the Pretoria building that Churchill escaped through, and a garden dedicated to Churchill’s memory on the grounds of the British consulate in what is now Mozambique.
McCormick might not be as exotic as South Africa, and booksellers might not be as overtly heroic as Churchill was, but Millard is excited to be a part of the BEA adventure this weekend. Today, she will be signing galleys of Hero of the Empire at the Doubleday booth (2433), 9:30–10:30 a.m.
This article appeared in the May 13, 2016 edition of PW BEA Show Daily.