When studying history, it can be difficult to connect the dots between people, places and events. It’s easy to assume iconic figures existed in a vacuum, or that history moved at a steady pace as it hit each and every milestone in its own time. This, of course, is not the case, and our understanding of history is greatly hampered by this lack of perspective. But in his new book “When Lions Roar,” Thomas Maier goes to great lengths to illustrate the numerous connections between two great families, and in doing so paints a vivid picture of recent history.
“When Lions Roar” takes on the Churchills and the Kennedys, exploring not only the links between the families but also the complicated dynamics at play between powerful fathers and their rising-star sons. Beginning with a young Winston Churchill struggling to connect with his aloof and cold father, the relationship between generations remains at the forefront throughout the book. Through all the ups and downs of both the Churchill and Kennedy children, including Randolph Churchill’s once-bright political star slowly dwindling and the assassinations of JFK and RFK, Maier weaves into the historical records questions of how parents on the public stage motivate and support their children without keeping them in the shadow of a family legacy.
The patriarchs of the book are Winston Churchill and Joe Kennedy, and a tension runs between them from the outset. Joe, an Irish-Catholic American who managed to land the ambassadorship to Great Britain immediately before World War II, and Winston, proud carrier of a long and dignified legacy in British history as well as direct experience with Irish revolutionaries, are tied together through a web of mutual acquaintances and business deals, as well as political activity. What begins as a warm relationship starts to fray as World War II comes closer, and Ambassador Kennedy throws his support behind Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement approach to Nazi Germany. Maier does not brush under the rug the Kennedy family’s early embrace of Hitler, but frames Joe’s ongoing opposition to the war around the death of his eldest son, Joe Jr., and the severe injuries sustained by John.
But the ties that bind the Churchills and the Kennedys go much deeper than just political office. Joe Kennedy and Randolph Churchill share mistresses, John Kennedy is inspired from a young age by Winston’s writing, and the families rely on the same newspaper men and behind-the-scenes advisors to maintain close relations between the U.K. and the U.S. Despite the discomfort between Joe and Winston, the younger generation is often thrown together at parties, in politics and through an ever changing web of former wives and current flames.
“When Lions Roar” is a massive book, clocking in at nearly 700 pages of text. Maier’s attention to detail shows, and the ever-growing list of names becomes baffling early on. The author repeats descriptions, which in some cases helps keep things straight but in others feels long-winded and redundant. Some connections between the families seem too obscure to be more than anecdotal, but for fans of history the book does cast greater light on the pivotal events not only of the twentieth century, but on the lives of two of its greatest families.
Although not a light read by any means, “When Lions Roar” is a treasure for scholars of the Kennedy or Churchill families. By turns funny (Winston Churchill’s wit is on full display throughout the book) and tragic (the juxtaposition of RFK’s mourning and Randolph Churchill’s barely noticed death) the book will leave the reader with a greater grasp on the interrelated nature not just of these dynastic families, but of how tightly knit the relationship between the U.K. and the U.S. became during World War II and beyond. “When Lions Roar” makes history’s largest names and events human and complicated, bringing to life the trans-Atlantic elites that shaped our world.
I received a free copy of this book through the “Blogging For Books” program.
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