By Marty Demarest
Even though it was adequate for Winston Churchill himself, Gretchen Rubin declares that "the conventional time line surely fails" when trying to mark the major events of his life. And so Rubin has structured Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill in discreet chapters with topics like "Churchill as Leader," and "Churchill in Tears." This is a clever deconstruction of the parts that constitute a good biography. But the parts alone do not fulfill the task; they must be filled with things. And here is where Rubin, as both biographer and portraitist, fails.
Readers looking to familiarize themselves with the man who helped create what would become Israel, who was at the center of the beginnings of modern Irish unrest, who wrestled with imperialism's ability to inhibit civil war in India, will be disappointed. Many achievements and facts are omitted, some are judged, and very little is contextualized. Rubin's failure to illuminate the world around Churchill ruins Forty Ways. One of the book's chapters, titled "Churchill Exposed," attempts to reduce Churchill to today's moral correctives. "Churchill muddied his identity," Rubin assured us, "with contradictions and shortcomings." We are told that Churchill "used opprobrious terms like blackamoor, chink, wop, and baboo." These are vile terms; but in order to extend that villainy to someone who uses them we need to know the context.
Taking Churchill to task this way reveals only one truth: Even after his era has passed, we must still reckon with the man. Nevertheless, we don't need a nursemaid's version of history that spoon-feeds us the past from a comfortable seat in the present. Traits that Rubin identifies as being important to Churchill are given to us already half-digested. Churchill, Rubin writes, "was habitually careless with money." That seems factual enough. But Rubin continues: "This unattractive fact about Churchill shouldn't be neglected." Unattractive indeed.
Churchill's relationship to alcohol is reduced to two choices: "Winston Churchill Was an Alcoholic;" and, "Winston Churchill Was Not an Alcoholic." His fatherhood: "Winston Churchill Was a Good Parent;" "Winston Churchill Was Not a Good Parent." By trying to offer a pluralistic view of the man, Rubin only reveals herself as caught up in a simplistic dualism. Gretchen Rubin Is a Good Writer; Gretchen Rubin Is Not a Good Writer. The choice, when put that way, seems easy.
Publication date: 06/24/03