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BOOK REVIEW: ‘A Daughter’s Tale’

- - Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A DAUGHTER'S TALE: THE MEMOIR OF WINSTON CHURCHILL'S YOUNGEST CHILD
By Mary Soames
Random House, $28, 357 pages, illustrated

Ninety this year, Mary Soames is Winston Churchill's last surviving child, born shortly after the death of his infant daughter Marigold. Unlike her older siblings Randolph, Diana and Sarah, who struggled with the burden of such a famous father and had all sorts of well-documented and often embarrassing problems, Mary Churchill Soames seems to have weathered her challenging heritage with consummate grace. Reading this delightful memoir, one begins to understand why. For although by no means blind to the faults of those around her, she seems to have developed the capacity to take difficulties in her stride while reveling in the unique joys and benefits that were just as much part of her lot.

It is rare to find a memoir as fond as this one without any trace of hagiography. Although Mrs. Soames can quote her diary, "O darling Papa -- I love you so, so much and it breaks my heart to be able to do so little" -- written when her father was depressed following his surprise electoral defeat in July 1945, her portrait of life with him is clear-eyed. If certainly not a portrait warts and all, "A Daughter's Tale" does not flinch from some of the more difficult times in the Churchill household or in its author's life.

Conscripted into the military like all single young women in wartime England, Mrs. Soames served in an anti-aircraft battery during much of the war, graduating to doing clerical work in the field toward the end of the conflict before returning to London. How odd it must have been to divide her time between freezing huts with all kinds of privations and the luxury with which the Churchills managed to surround themselves even during the stringent conditions of wartime England. But just as often she reminds us of the quality of Churchill the man and towering national hero by quoting his characteristically resonant words:

"War is a game played with a smiling face, but do you think there is laughter in my heart? We travel in style and round us is great luxury and seeming security, but I never forget the man at the front, the bitter struggles, and the fact that men are dying in the air, on the land, and at sea."

This book is simply crammed with up-close and personal views of the great man, as only a member of the innermost circle of the innermost circle could know, conveyed with such affection and tact, yet somehow managing to be honest as well.

It's not just Churchill of whom we get a privileged view. One of Mrs. Soames' lengthier and more pleasant interludes was the time spent with her parents in North America during most of August and September 1943, first at the Quebec Conference and later in the United States from Niagara Falls to Georgia. There was some quality time with the Roosevelts at Hyde Park and the White House, where "we sampled the really nasty food produced by the famous-for-it Mrs. Nesbitt." Given what she must have experienced of England's notorious wartime cuisine, that "really nasty" White House fare must indeed have been quite something. Nevertheless, all that face time with FDR produced some marvelous insights:

"He is a 'raconteur' -- & it can be tedious -- But at other times it is interesting & fun . . . what a cultivated animal FDR is . . . and a cute, cunning old bird . . . all I feel & think about FDR -- not that it matters -- but I am so intrigued. To me he seems at once idealistic -- cynical -- warm-hearted & generous -- worldly-wise -- naive -- courageous -- tough -- thoughtful -- charming -- tedious -- vain -- sophisticated -- civilized . . . And yet while I admire him intensely, and could not but be devoted to him after his great personal kindness to me -- yet I must confess [he] makes me laugh & he rather bores me."

Again, that preternatural capacity to combine shrewdness, honesty and kindness in her observations.

Later, Mrs. Soames accompanied her father to the Potsdam Conference, but sadly, President Truman and Stalin don't come into her viewfinder quite the way FDR did. Still, you can't have everything you wish for even in a book as overstuffed with goodies as this one.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.