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How The Boer War Helped Winston Churchill Become The 'Hero Of The Empire'

Author Candice Millard argues that Churchill's battlefield coverage and daring escape from capture while serving as a correspondent for a British newspaper were turning points in his life.


Other segments from the episode on September 26, 2017

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 26, 2017: Interview with Candice Millard: Review of book 'Manhatten Beach'; commentary about an incident that became a turning point of sorts.



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Great leaders are often associated with an early biographical story. Our guest, Candice Millard, tells the story of a critical moment in the early life of a towering figure of the 20th century, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. In her new book, Millard writes about Churchill in his early 20s, full of political ambition and desperate to distinguish himself as a soldier. After participating in three foreign conflicts, Churchill finally became famous in England during the Boer War where he showed courage and heroism in battle and managed a daring escape from a prison camp even though he was there not as a soldier but as a correspondent for a British newspaper.

Candice Millard has written two best-selling books, both about episodes in the lives of American presidents - "Destiny Of The Republic" about James Garfield's assassination and "The River Of Doubt" about Teddy Roosevelt's trip up the Amazon River. FRESH AIR's Dave Davies spoke to her about her new book, "Hero Of The Empire: The Boer War, A Daring Escape, And The Making Of Winston Churchill."

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Well, Candice Millard, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, when I was growing up, Winston Churchill was very much a part of our consciousness. I go back a bit. Some of our younger listeners may not know as much about him. Just give us a sense of where he fits in history, what he was mostly known for.

CANDICE MILLARD: So usually when we think of Winston Churchill, we think of World War II. He was the prime minister during World War II, and many people believe that it was his incredible eloquence, his determination, his belief that he was in the right place at the right time that got Britain, the United States, so much of the Western world through World War II. So we know him for his eloquence and his cutting wit.

DAVIES: I thought we'd just listen to a bit of Winston Churchill's voice. This is probably his most famous speech where he's, you know, encouraging the nation to stand strong.


WINSTON CHURCHILL: The British Empire and the French Republic, linked together in their cause and in their need, will defend to the death their native soil, aiding each other like good comrades to the utmost of their strength. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France. We shall fight on the seas and oceans. We shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air. We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields and in the streets. We shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.

DAVIES: Resolution personified, Winston Churchill in the 1940s. Your book, of course, deals with him at a much younger age. Now, I think of Winston Churchill in the 1940s when he was older as this rotund guy in a three-piece suit chomping a cigar, probably a glass of whiskey. This young Churchill was a man with a lot of ambition. How did he regard his own talents and prospects?

MILLARD: As articulate as he was, as brilliant as he was, as ambitious as he was, he was that when he was 23 years old as well. You know, even though he had come from, you know, the aristocracy, they were struggling. There was no money. His father had died when he was very young and had left him very little money. His mother was a spendthrift, and he knew he had to make his way in the world and he had it all planned out from a very young age.

DAVIES: And the plan involved war, which he had always been fascinated with.

MILLARD: Always, from a young age. You know, he had 1,500 toy soldiers. He didn't go to college. He went to Sandhurst, the Royal Military Academy, and he loved the war games there. And he called war the glittering gateway to distinction, and he knew that that was his best, clearest path to fame and then, he hoped, to political power. He wanted to throw himself into every war and into the most brutal battles that he could find because he thought I'll win medals. I'll be noticed, and that's how I'll win my political seat.

DAVIES: You know, people can become impassioned about fighting for causes, you know, liberating the oppressed or defending your homeland and family. In Churchill's day, the young Churchill's day, the British army was about the business of protecting this sprawling empire across the globe. And from our modern perspective, it's kind of hard to see that as a noble purpose. How did Churchill regard it?

MILLARD: He was an unabashed imperialist. He was fiercely proud of the British Empire, you know. And it was - it was enormous at that time. You know, they ruled over a quarter of the human race. It was something like 450 million people. It was more than - more than a fifth of the world's land surface, so it was huge, and there were constantly, as you can imagine, they were constantly putting down revolts everywhere around the world, in Egypt and Ireland and India. And so this gave him not only great pride for his nation but also boundless opportunities to go where the wars were and where he could get attention.

DAVIES: He first sees action in Cuba as a military observer. He didn't fight, but he saw some combat. But then he goes to India with a regiment to suppress a revolt of the Pashtuns, and this would have been, I guess, a modern day Pakistan, right? But you describe a battle in which these Pashtun fighters who are with their rifles up on a rocky hillside and the British advance toward them. Tell us what happened and how the young Winston Churchill performed.

MILLARD: So they come out of nowhere. His regiment is what they call sort of up in the air. They find themselves suddenly alone. They've been separated from the rest of the army and the - and they know that the Pashtun are there, but they don't know where they are, and suddenly they just erupt. They're climbing down the mountainsides and they're coming at them. And they were known for not only being very, very brave, very skilled fighters but very brutal. They not only killed their enemy, they slaughtered them. And Churchill sees this happening all around him, and these are his friends. These are young men just like him. And I think that's something important to remember.

Usually when we think of Churchill, we think of him as an old man sending young men into war, but he knew as well as anyone and better than most what war meant. He watched his friends being sliced to ribbons all around him, but he never thought it would happen to him. He said to his mother - he wrote to her later - he said I do not believe the gods would create so potent a being as myself for so prosaic an ending (laughter).

DAVIES: In this battle, he is not crouching behind cover.

MILLARD: No, no, he never did. And in truth, not many people in the British military would, especially not officers. It was considered to be, you know, very embarrassing and very much beneath them to duck or to hide. You know, at this point, they're still standing in these - even fighting in these perfectly precise lines. Even though, you know, war is changing all around them, they're very reluctant to change with it. And so, you know, most officers would not hide, and Winston Churchill certainly would not.

DAVIES: He was on a white pony going around, I mean, making a huge target, and these Pashtun are excellent rifleman.

MILLARD: Absolutely, yeah. He actually horrified everyone around him. He had - he bought this white pony and was determined to ride it on the battlefield just so he could be noticed. And, I mean, you know, the fact is it's incredible that he wasn't killed before he got any notice from the people who might be able to give him a medal. But again and again, as I said, he wanted to be in the most difficult, most dangerous battles he could find, and he wanted to be noticed. He wanted to stand out.

DAVIES: Candice Millard's new book about the young Winston Churchill is "Hero Of The Empire." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with writer Candice Millard. Her new book is "Hero Of The Empire: The Boer War, A Daring Escape, And The Making Of Winston Churchill."

So the heart of this book takes place in the Second Boer War in what is now South Africa. Then, in what is now South Africa, there were two distinct European communities apart from the native Africans there. There were, of course, the British in the Cape Colony at south and eastern end of the territory. And then there were the territories held by the Boers, people of Dutch and German descent who had independent states. You want to give us a sense of the conflict here, and why the Boers and the British were headed for war?

MILLARD: So the Boers were a very interesting and unique group. So as you said, they're largely Dutch, German. They're a few - Huguenot. And they had been there for centuries. And in that time, they had transformed into, really, an entirely new ethnic group. They weren't European. They weren't African. They were Boer, and they had developed their own language, Afrikaans, which is this mixture of Dutch, and Portuguese and even Khoikhoi. They were very, very religious. They were deeply racist, and they were stubbornly independent. And most of the - like, they just wanted to be left alone.

And so the British would obviously use South Africa when they would be sailing to India. They weren't that interested in it beyond that until diamonds were found in the region, and gold. Both were found in the Boer Republics. And so they very quickly became very interested in it.

And the Boers had tried to get away from the British. They had moved hundreds of miles into the interior in what was called the Great Trek. But now there was no way they could get away from them, and the British were cutting them off from the sea and surrounding them. And finally, the Boers had enough, and they issued an ultimatum. They asked the British to stand down or prepare for war. And the British, who wanted nothing more than an excuse to go to war, just let the ultimatum pass with little more than a sneer.

DAVIES: And Churchill is still looking for the glory of war. He still wants to be recognized. He wants to get medals. He wants to get into this fight, but he's not in the Army anymore. So he manages to get it not as an officer, but as a journalist reporting for The Morning Post. Were lines between correspondents and combatants less clear then?

MILLARD: They were actually pretty clear. They hadn't been. There had been allowed to - officers had been allowed to write, and journalists had been allowed to fight. But they had made a rule that that was no longer OK. And they had made that rule because of Winston Churchill because he was so open in his assessment and his criticism of British military leaders that the British army finally said, enough, you can be an officer or you can be a correspondent, but you can't be both. And so, as you say, he had left the British military.

But he was an extraordinary writer, and everybody was fighting over him. And he was very savvy, and he needed the money. And so he had an offer from one newspaper, and he took that to another newspaper, and he ended up becoming the highest-paid correspondent that England had ever had.

DAVIES: A lot of the British thought that this would be a short, one-sided contest. After all, the British had the greatest army on earth. Tell us about the Boers and their readiness for this.

MILLARD: The Boers were incredibly skilled and capable fighters, and the British absolutely underestimated them. As you said, they thought that this was just going to be another colonial war. But not only did the Boers know the South African felt incredibly well, they had been over every nook and cranny of it. But they had seen this war coming, and they had prepared, and they actually had better weapons than the British army. And they were absolutely, fully ready for a new kind of warfare, a type of guerrilla fighting that the British army was not prepared for.

DAVIES: So the British are going to teach the Boers a lesson. When the fighting starts, how does it go?

MILLARD: Not well for the British. They immediately began to lose battle after battle. They lose some of their most revered, and respected and necessary leaders, and they are shocked. The British public is anxiously waiting for news. And they think, you know, look, it starts in October. They think, for sure, it's going to be over by December so they can celebrate with their Christmas pudding. And the exact opposite is happening. Every bit of news that is coming back to them is bad, going to worse.

DAVIES: This is 1899 - right? - right at the turn of the century.

MILLARD: That's right. They're on the cusp of - everything's changing. It's a new century, and it's a new war, and it's a new type of warfare.

DAVIES: Now, Winston Churchill is on his way to South Africa on a ship with a lot of soldiers and commanders for the British. They're going to come and assist in the fighting there. He finally hurries to the front and ends up in a little town called Estcourt, right?

MILLARD: That's right. So he realized very quickly - he was actually on the ship with Sir Redvers Buller, who was the commander in chief of her majesty's army in South Africa. But as soon as they got to Cape Town, he knew that he couldn't wait around for them. They were going to take way too long to get to the front. And so he gets on the last train out, and he finally gets to Estcourt, which is about 40 miles south of Ladysmith, which was the front. But Ladysmith was completely locked down at that point. Nobody could get in or out. The Boers had it surrounded. And so he's stuck in Estcourt with a couple of small regiments.

DAVIES: Right, so the - so Ladysmith is where the British forces that are there are surrounded and in deep trouble after some defeats. And he is at this smaller British fort in this town Estcourt, and there's this curious method of renaissance - armored trains that would be sent up through the countryside. Explain what this was.

MILLARD: So as Winston Churchill knew, and as every man who was there knew, the armored trains, they sound like a good idea, and they're actually a disaster in war. So there are these large trains that have been fortified with steel plates, and they seem like they're going to be this great protection for the men and supplies on them. And you've got these routes, and they can get places very quickly.

The problem is, they're an obvious target. And the Boers, who can vanish in this landscape - you know, they're not wearing uniforms. They're wearing just their regular clothing, which is brown or gray, dark, and it just blends in. And they're riding on their own, and they know where to hide. And they just watch these trains coming, and they can easily attack them. And the minute the war started, they started attacking these armored trains. And, you know, it was just a disaster for the British military, but they continued to use them. These were their means of reconnaissance out of Estcourt.

DAVIES: And of course, surprise is an advantage in military operations, and there is no surprise where a train is going. The tracks are fixed.

MILLARD: Nope (laughter).

DAVIES: So Churchill joins, you know, a force going out on one of these trains. What happens?

MILLARD: So he knows, first of all, how dangerous it is to go on one of these trains, but he is desperate to get to the front. He's desperate to get to any kind of action, to do anything he can. He's not just going to sit still in this little town. And so he meets up with a good friend of his named Aylmer Haldane, who had been in some of the earlier battles, had been wounded, ends up in Estcourt and one day is asked to lead a reconnaissance on this train. And he says to Churchill, hey, do you want to come with me? And Churchill, knowing it's a bad idea, knowing how dangerous it is, says absolutely.

DAVIES: So the Boers have set up an ambush. They're going to derail the train and then attack the force that's within it, and this works pretty well. How did Churchill respond here?

MILLARD: So what the Boers did is they just watched the train go by, and they go to the bottom of a hill, and they start putting stones at the bottom of this hill. And then they go to the top of it, and they know this is a train. It's going to go one way and then it's going to come back, so they wait for it to come back. When it gets to the top of the hill, they start firing at it, shells and bullets just raining down on this train. And the train conductor does exactly what they want him to do. He pushes on the gas. He goes as fast as he can to get away from them, careening down this hill where he runs into these - all these rocks that they put. And the first two cars are thrown off the tracks. Several men are killed and horribly wounded. The man right next to Churchill has his arm blown off.

And then they're stopped and they're surrounded by just this hailstorm of shells and bullets. Winston Churchill, 24 years old, one of the few civilians on the train, takes over the defense of this train. He immediately jumps out, running back and forth, shouting orders to people, and even more extraordinary, they listen to him. You know, this is a train full of uniformed soldiers who have their commander, his friend, Aylmer Haldane, right there. And even Haldane listens to Churchill and says, absolutely, that's the way to go. And every man who makes it out alive credits Churchill's resourcefulness and bravery for saving their lives.

DAVIES: Right. And of course, this involved trying to decouple what's the movable part of the train from the cars that have been blown off the track...

MILLARD: (Laughter) That's right.

DAVIES: ...Trying to get the engineer to maneuver it into place and move the derailed cars out of the way so that what's left of the train can escape all while, you, know gunfire is raining down. And he's moving about in the open, taking charge. It was really quite a moment.

MILLARD: It's his instinct to take charge. Everybody else sees that. They see his confidence. They see his courage. And it happens in a heartbeat, and it works.

DAVIES: So some make it, some don't. What happens?

MILLARD: So those men who - a few that are able to get the engine going and knock some of the cars - so just to explain the - with these armored trains, they put some cars in the front of the engine, and so they knock those off and they go on. Some men are dead and then come the Boers. And to Churchill's horror, some men in his battalion and in the regiment put up their white flags. They find their handkerchiefs, and they surrender. And the Boers come down. Now, Churchill makes a run for it. He's not going to be caught, but he sees these two men coming after him. He reaches for his revolver and realizes that he's left it on the train, and he's got nowhere to go, and he ends up surrendering and becomes a prisoner of war.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with Candice Millard about her new book, "Hero Of The Empire: The Boer War, A Daring Escape, And The Making Of Winston Churchill." After a break, we'll hear more of the interview, Maureen Corrigan will review Jennifer Egan's new novel and Haroon Moghul, author of "How To Be A Muslim," will tell us about an incident at a border crossing that changed his life. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview Dave Davies recorded with Candice Millard about her book, "Hero Of The Empire." It's about the period in the life of young Winston Churchill when he became the famous hero he aspired to be. He was working as a newspaper correspondent reporting on the Boer War, a colonial war fought by the British against Dutch and German Boer settlers in what is now South Africa. While trying to get to the front to witness the fighting, he was captured, along with members of the British army, and taken to a prisoner of war camp.

DAVIES: So Churchill and others are at a prison camp, but it's the most genteel prison camp you could imagine, right? It's in a school. Security is light. They can even have servants if they can afford them, right?

MILLARD: That's right, that's right. He gets his haircut.

DAVIES: But he's miserable. He is missing the action. He wants to escape, and he and some other inmates hatch a plan. What is it?

MILLARD: Well, first of all, Churchill has his own plans, and being Winston Churchill, they are these incredibly elaborate, really ridiculous plans. So his idea is not just to quietly escape, but he wants to take over the entire prison, and then he wants to take over the prison where they're keeping the enlisted men, and then he's going to take over Pretoria, which is the capital, and then they're going to kidnap the Boer president, and then they're going to end the war.

So that's his plan, and it's very elaborate, and everyone's sort of brushing off this ridiculous kid. But he overhears his friend Aylmer Haldane, who's the guy who had invited him on the train. And this guy Adam Brockie, who's a really interesting guy, he's really scrappy. He's Irish. He's been in South Africa for several years. He speaks Afrikaans. He speaks Dutch. He speaks Zulu, and he finds out that they have a very different, quiet plan.

So there's a prison yard, and it's surrounded by a fence and armed guards at all times. And at night, it's lit by electric lights. But they've noticed that there's a corner of the yard that's dark when the lights are on, and they think if a guard's looking the wrong way, they can - they can get out quickly. And when Churchill - as soon as he finds out that they have this plan, he wants in.

DAVIES: And they're just going to climb over a not very formidable wall, right?

MILLARD: That's right. It's not particularly high. It's mostly the armed guards that will keep you from doing it because they absolutely will shoot you. So the other prisoners who have this plan, Haldane and Brockie, they don't want Churchill to go with him because he's famous. And so, you know, the fact that he's gone will be noticed right away. He talks too much. And so they know that he's going to be telling everybody their plan. And he's not in great shape, so they don't - they're facing almost 300 miles of enemy territory to get to what was in Portuguese East Africa - is now Mozambique - where there was a British consulate. And so they don't think he can do it, and they don't want him with them. But Haldane feels kind of bad because he feels like it's his fault Churchill was captured because he invited him on the train. And he says to Churchill, look, we don't want you to go with us, but I'll leave it to you, and Churchill says I'm coming along.

DAVIES: Right. And I love the fact that he's not in great shape because while everyone else has been exercised, he's depressed and he's been getting flabby.

MILLARD: Right. Right. He's been moping, trying to read maybe, but he's just mad. He just wants out.

DAVIES: So the night comes. What happens?

MILLARD: So the night comes, and they make an attempt. There's a little lavatory near this corner, and they're waiting and waiting and usually the guards move along, but they're just not on this night. And they're really frustrated and they finally say, OK, you know, we're going to go in to dinner and maybe try again after dinner. And Churchill says, I'm just going to take another look. And when he's there, the guard turns his back and Churchill sees his opportunity. And being Winston Churchill, even though he knows he's not supposed to go with the other guys, he jumps over the fence. He climbs it, and he gets out. And - but now he's stuck.

So he's hiding in these low bushes on the other side, but because it's not his plan, he doesn't have anything. He doesn't have food. He doesn't have a map, a compass, a weapon. He doesn't know the rest of the plan. He doesn't speak the language. He has nothing. So Brockie and Haldane have everything, and they're on the other side of the fence.

DAVIES: The guards discover that he's gone. How widely known is it in the Boer Republics that this famous inmate, Winston Churchill, is at large?

MILLARD: They immediately put word out. You know, it's really interesting because they are - the Boers are humiliated and enraged. And Winston Churchill left this very cheeky letter behind, too, for Louis de Souza who was the secretary for war of the Boers, you know, thanking him for his hospitality, saying he was so sorry that he couldn't be there to thank him in person. And so the Boers hate him, and they are determined to find him. And they believe at first that he must have been helped by somebody in Pretoria, and maybe he's hiding there. And so they ransack every house in Pretoria, and they put out a wanted poster, you know, with this description of him that's humiliating to him, saying, you know, he's kind of small and he has a lisp and he's sort of trying to grow a mustache, but it's not working.

And so - and they send that out everywhere with a reward for his capture. And Churchill knows this. He knows that they're going to be watching for him. He knows that they're scouring the fields, and he knows that if he's captured, there is a very real chance that they will kill him.

DAVIES: So he's along the rail lines, and he realizes he can't be seen in a station. He can't risk being discovered. On the other hand, he doesn't have food and water and what he needs to survive. He's got hundreds of miles to go to make it out of the Boer Republics. He decides he's going to need help from somebody. And, you know, there are Boer farmers who are not likely to be sympathetic. He comes upon some coal mines and decides he's going to take a chance and knock on the door of a family. What happens?

MILLARD: He keeps going back and forth, like should I go or should I not? And, you know, he even prays for help at one time, which is very unusual. Winston Churchill was not a religious man, but he's scared. He's young. He has his whole life ahead of him, and he knows there is a very real chance that he won't make it out of this alive. And so he sees this house, and he decides he's going to take a chance, this crazy, crazy chance. And he knocks on the door, and a man opens the door, and he starts to make up this story out of whole cloth. And he says, you know, I'm a Boer, and I fell off a train and I injured my shoulder, and I'm wondering if you can help me.

And as he's saying this, he realizes I don't speak Dutch (laughter). I can't keep this lie going. And the man just stares at him, and he opens the door and he motions for Churchill to come in. And he leads him to this room, and he - his name was John Howard - puts a gun on the table which Churchill realizes he'd been holding the whole time. And Churchill says, you know, I think I should tell you the truth, and the man says, yeah, I think you should.

DAVIES: And what happens?

MILLARD: (Laughter) And Churchill says, you know, I'm actually Winston Churchill. I've escaped from a POW camp in Pretoria. Will you help me? And the man just looks at him, turns around and locks the door. And Churchill thinks this is not a good sign. You know, this is not going the way I need it to. And instead, the man thrusts his hand out and he shakes Winston Churchill's hand. And he said I'm John Howard. I'm British. I'm going to get you out of here.

DAVIES: So they finally figure out a way to get him out of the country. What is it?

MILLARD: So there was a man who ran the store nearby, and he often would have shipments of wool that he would take into - into Portuguese East Africa, into Lourenco Marques, which is the capital there. And - and so they bring him in. There are a couple other workers there who are British as well, and they're all conspiring to help Churchill, but they've got to hide him because their lives are at risk as well. And so they decide what they're going to do is they're going to put him in one of the - one of the wool cars, one of the cars that are holding the wool. They make a little hollow in it, and they - and they tuck him in. And luckily for him, this man decides at the last minute that he's going to go along with him to help him in case there are any problems because he still has more than a hundred miles to go. And they have to stop at all these stations and there's - there are going to be inspections.

DAVIES: Right. These are rail cars full of wool. He is buried among them. And it's dicey. There are hitches, but he gets all the way out of the country to the port city of Lourenco Marques, which is in Portuguese East Africa. And he's got to get to the British consulate. He gets in. What happens?

MILLARD: So he's absolutely filthy. He's got coal dust from head to toe. But, you know, he's very confident, and he marches up to the secretary at this British consulate and demands to see the consul general. And the secretary thinks, you know, who is this filthy person, and sort of says, well, you know, come back tomorrow and we'll see if we can get you an appointment. And he steps back, and he starts shouting, repeating his demands to see the consul general who's just upstairs. And the window flies open, and he looks out and he sees this filthy young man shouting in the street. So he runs down and he says, what's your name? And he finds out it's Winston Churchill, which - the entire - you know, all of Britain, all of South Africa has been wondering. They know that he had escaped, but they think he's going to be caught. Nobody believes he's going to make it out alive. And there he is.

DAVIES: This wasn't the end of war for Britain, and it wasn't the end of Churchill's military career, was it?

MILLARD: No. Churchill was obviously very involved in World War I, and he continued - I mean, he - again, he loved war. He didn't like what it brought, but he loved the - the thrill of it, and there was never going to be a war that he didn't take part in.

DAVIES: You know, one is tempted to say the rest is history because, I mean, Churchill was a - is a giant figure in the 20th-century history. But I'm - I'm wondering, you know, he was the prime minister in World War II who led England through one of its darkest times. You know, the embodiment of resolve, in a way. And I'm wondering if you think his experience in the Boer War and other wars informed his ability to lead the nation.

MILLARD: I do, absolutely. And I think especially the Boer War, and especially because of his capture and his imprisonment and his escape because it confirmed what he had always suspected about himself - that he was special, that he was extraordinary, that he was destined for greatness - and attested all these unique skills that he had, his - his resourcefulness, you know, his determination, his - his courage. And all of those things come into play, and in a critical way, 40 years later in World War II.

DAVIES: You know, it's one thing to be courageous. It's another thing to think that you're right all the time. And it - you know, the Winston Churchill you described even as a young man would tell commanders decades older than him when he disagreed with their approach. And you write that a woman that he had had a relationship with, Pamela, said that the first time you meet Winston you see all his faults. The rest of your life you spend in discovering his virtues.

I mean, this was a guy so cocksure of himself. And it's interesting. Now, you've written about leaders. I mean, about presidents and Churchill. And I'm wondering how you evaluate that kind of level of self-confidence as a quality of leadership? It can be good. It can get you into trouble too, can't it?

MILLARD: It can. And he obviously made quite a few mistakes throughout his life. He was far from perfect. But I think what's most powerful about his - his leadership - and the same was true, absolutely, of - of Theodore Roosevelt. They were very similar in a - in a lot of ways - is that it was contagious, you know? He looked at you and he believed not only was he brave, not only could he do this, but you could, too. That inspired, you know, entire nations to keep fighting, and in the most wrenching situations.

DAVIES: Well, Candice Millard, thanks so much for speaking with us.

MILLARD: Thank you so much. It was an honor.

GROSS: Candice Millard is the author of "Hero Of The Empire." She spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies, who is also WHYY's senior reporter. After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review an historical novel by Jennifer Egan, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her 2010 novel, "A Visit From The Goon Squad." This is FRESH AIR.


This is FRESH AIR. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review of Jennifer Egan's new novel, "Manhattan Beach." Egan won the Pulitzer Prize for her 2010 book, "A Visit From The Goon Squad." That book, which centered on the rock-music industry, was called by some critics a novel, and a collection of linked stories by others. Maureen says that Egan's latest book is much easier to label. It's a big, old-fashioned work of historical fiction.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: So many great writers have given us so many great quotes in an attempt to capture New York, but I think my favorite is by the legendary New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling. Before it was anything else, Liebling says, New York was a seaport, and before anything else, it still is. Jennifer Egan clearly shares Liebling's view in her latest novel, "Manhattan Beach." Egan is known for the edgy tone of her work and for her fragmented storylines that require some self-assembly by readers. Indeed, in Egan's powerful 2001 novel, "Look At Me," the very face of her main character, a model who's been in a terrible car accident, is broken and tenuously held together by titanium screws. But no such self-conscious soldering is called for in "Manhattan Beach." This is a big, traditional, historical novel in the manner of a Ken Follett or Herman Wouk. The sweeping story Egan tells here is intertwined with New York's elemental identity as a seaport, which became more crucial than ever during the Second World War.

"Manhattan Beach" opens on the Brooklyn shoreline during the Great Depression. An 11-year-old girl named Anna Kerrigan accompanies her father, Eddie, on a business call to the seaside mansion of a man named Dexter Styles. Eddie is a bag man. He delivers and collects payoffs for a racketeer with ties to the Longshoreman's Union. Years later when she's a young adult and working at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II, Anna will be haunted by memories of that winter afternoon on the beach. By then her father, Eddie, has been long gone. Common neighborhood wisdom has it that he abandoned the family because he couldn't take the crushing weight of caring for Anna's disabled younger sister. Meanwhile, Anna is supporting her mother and sister by doing monotonous women's work at the Navy Yard, precisely measuring parts destined for the Battleship Missouri. But then two events disrupt her dull routine. One lunch hour, Anna watches a man in a heavy canvas suit and bulbous metal helmet descend a ladder off the edge of a barge into the water. That's when she hears the word diver for the first time, and realizes that she, too, wants to be one and walk under the sea. Soon after, Anna tags along with a workmate, a self-professed bad girl, to a Manhattan nightclub. A man she dances with there tries to impress Anna by pointing out the gangster owner of the club who is none other than Dexter Styles, man of mystery. Styles, it turns out, may know something about Anna's father's abrupt disappearance.

Like every good historical novel I've ever read, the storyline of this one is as hokey as hell and completely transporting. "Manhattan Beach" is ambitiously and deliciously plot-driven, and it boldly helps itself to a wide library of earlier New York stories. There are echoes here of "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn," the Damon Runyon tales that would become "Guys And Dolls" and Joseph Mitchell's briny descriptions from "The Bottom Of The Harbor." From its first confined moments in the tenement apartment where Anna grows up, this tale swirls outward to Brooklyn-waterfront saloons and chowder bars, Grand Central and Penn Station, whose trains are now jammed with troops on their way to ships in the harbor. Egan even takes readers to waters off the coast of Africa, where merchant marine vessels come under attack by German U-boats. Meanwhile, the man-shortage back home allows Anna to realize her dream to become a diver. She eventually helps repair a battleship, the USS South Dakota, that seems to her like a skyscraper turned on its side. In a novel packed with vivid images, those underwater scenes are among the most compelling. The darkness and silence of the harbor floor is a mirror image of the nighttime New York City skyline above, blacked-out during war time.

"Manhattan Beach" isn't flawless. Especially at the beginning, Egan strains to convince readers of the authenticity of her story and intrusively references too many brand-names and period details - Ivory Flakes for washing, Automats, Duesenbergs, the 40-cent boxed chicken lunches that Anna buys at the Navy Yard. But to focus on scattered imperfections would be like focusing on the litter of New York City streets while ignoring the wonder of the city itself. "Manhattan Beach" is a big, gorgeous tribute to New York City and its seaport. In drawing from the classic catalog of New York stories, "Manhattan Beach" also takes its place among them.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed Jennifer Egan's new novel, "Manhattan Beach." After we take a short break, Haroon Moghul, author of "How To Be A Muslim," will tell us about an incident at a border crossing that had a surprising impact on his life. This is FRESH AIR.


This is FRESH AIR. In July, I interviewed Haroon Moghul after the publication of his memoir, "How To Be A Muslim: An American Story." Moghul is a first-generation American whose parents are from Pakistan. We've invited him back this time to read an essay he wrote for us about the time a seemingly minor encounter at a border crossing turned his life around.

HAROON MOGHUL: She'd been the love of my life. We were together for a dozen years, and then it was over. I was 32, bipolar, and divorce felt like the end of the world. I was so depressed I was hospitalized. Friends told me I needed time away to begin to heal. They helped me move to Dubai where I could be with family. But weeks passed, and I hardly recovered. I was no longer suicidal, it's true, but I didn't really care if I was alive either. Loved ones insisted that I should keep living until one day I'd want to.

So every 40 days, I'd drive to the nearest international border, leave Dubai, promptly make a U-turn and come back in. I'd get a new tourist visa and another 40 days to find a reason to live. I was always nervous on these journeys. In the years since my passport picture had been taken, I'd lost 60 pounds. I hardly looked like myself, and each time I approached a border, I feared I'd be denied a visa or, worse, deported.

On just one such trip, everything was going deceptively smoothly. I pulled up to a police officer sitting on what looked like a lawn chair outside what looked like a tollbooth. He wore gold-rimmed Ray-Bans, as all uniformed agents of Arab nations should. He appeared not to have a care in the world. Of course, when I handed over my passport, he flipped to the photograph page and burst out laughing. That seemed to be it though. He wordlessly stamped my passport and waved me forward. But I was not 15 minutes into the drive back that the car behind me, license plates from Oman, flashed its headlights. The driver gestured for me to pull over. Maybe in the desert wild he intended to kidnap, kill or eat me, but maybe he just needed help. Car trouble out here could mean death.

We both pulled into the breakdown lane and exited our cars. But as I walked towards him, he started backing up like he was scared of me. Keeping his distance, he said, you go back. Go back, I asked. Police say you go back, he explained. Then he dove into his car and rocketed away. Was this some kind of gambit to steal my car and leave me stranded? But fearing I might be arrested otherwise, I returned to the same tollbooth and the same officer regarded me with great confusion. And then he smiled, remembering why he'd called me back. He yelled, Muhammad. Another officer, presumably Muhammad, rushed over. Show him, the tollbooth officer ordered, your passport. My jaw all but fell to the floor. The officer had deputized the citizen of another country just to show his friend my fat picture.

Before I could say anything, he snatched my passport and opened the picture page for Muhammad. You were so fat, he cried. Muhammad laughed but then turned deadly serious. How, Muhammad asked with genuine curiosity, did you lose so much weight? What was I going to say, that the doctor's best guess was that I had an autoimmune disorder, that I lost my job, my savings, my apartment, my wife, my reasons to go on living, that I hardly cared how I looked or if I ate? Instead, I did the Muslim equivalent of throwing my hands in the air. Alhamdulillah, I said. The Arabic means, simply, praise the Lord. But I'd whispered it, lending the moment a sacred aura I'd not intended.

In Dubai, they suffer First World problems, but they process them with 7th-century spirituality. Alhamdulillah, the officers repeated, transformed, like they'd never laughed at me at all. We might have come from different ends of the Earth, but in that brief moment, we became one. And then the encounter was over.

On the drive back, I suddenly burst out laughing. I hadn't laughed that hard since my divorce. I didn't think I ever would. But the whole thing was so ridiculous. I knew then that I'd tell everyone what had happened. I'd pass my passport around, too, for dramatic effect. And then it hit me. Alongside the pain of the past and the numbness of the present, there was something else. I knew I wanted to stick around long enough to tell this story.

GROSS: Haroon Moghul is the author of "How To Be A Muslim: An American Story" and a fellow in Jewish-Muslim relations at the Shalom Hartman Institute. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the new HBO series "The Deuce." It's set in Times Square, 42nd Street, in the early '70s when it was a strip for prostitutes, pimps and peep shows. It follows the money and who exploits and who gets exploited. It's also about the rise of the porn industry. Our guests will be the show's creators, David Simon, who also created HBO's "The Wire," and "Treme," and George Pelecanos, who wrote for both of those shows. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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