Reviewed by Kelly Ferjutz
Loving Eleanor is, quite simply, an astonishing book. Perhaps I should qualify that just a bit. I’m old enough to remember WWII, so these people and some of the events described within these pages are very familiar to me. As preposterous as some of them seem, they really did happen just this way!
When you combine a wonderfully different story line with a terrific writer, sometimes you get ‘magic’! Such is the case with this book, a fictionalized version of one part of the incredible and multi-faceted life of Eleanor Roosevelt. In the lifetimes before ‘instant media’ there were such things as secrets. Some of them are better left that way, but others seem to benefit by being unveiled to the light and brought out of shadow.
Thirty or so years ago, I was a volunteer reader at the Sight Center in Cleveland, Ohio. They had a closed circuit radio station, and volunteers read various newspapers, on regular shifts from 9 am to 9 pm. In between the papers, they would play books-on-tape, etc. With a partner, I read on Wednesday evenings–the New York Times from 7 to 8, and the Wall Street Journal from 8 to 9. But I also taped books for them as well. Some were for their own listeners and some for the Library of Congress Talking Books program. (In fact, one of the books I did for them is still there, as I discovered last year to my amazement!) Anyway, I also taped a book about Eleanor and the friendship with her doctor, a much younger man. It was a very enjoyable book written by the doctor’s wife–she came on the scene after the friendship had ended, if I recall correctly. So that helped to prepare me for this one, and Eleanor’s constant need to be loved. I can all too easily sympathize with that.
Eleanor Roosevelt could have been bigger-than-life, even had she not been married to the 32nd President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. She was not one to sit around and be content with the roles of wife, mother and grandmother. She felt a compulsion to aid those people (especially women) who were not as fortunate by birth or standard-of-living as she was. She couldn’t help the advantageous circumstances into which she was born, but throughout her long life, she was diligent at working to improve the lot of ordinary people.
Many young women (and men) of today are totally unaware of the prevailing restrictions of a hundred years ago that were such an accepted part of daily life, and therefore seldom questioned. Lorena Hickok was a young woman who rose above her disadvantaged childhood in Wisconsin to become a respected and famous newspaper reporter during the 1920s and 30s. And then she met Eleanor Roosevelt.
This book is classified as fiction, but it’s so real, you feel as though you’re reading an actual biography of Lorena ‘Hick’ Hickok, and her various adventures with Eleanor Roosevelt. In addition to Lorena helping E.R. (as she was known) to come out of her shell, and become the First Lady of the World, they also had a lesbian affair, which is heavily documented in letters they left behind. Many of these were sealed at the FDR Library until a few years ago.
Lorena knew the two main rules governing journalism, then as now. A reporter shouldn’t get too close to a source. And, the reporter should stay out of the story. Even so, she was helpless to stay out of this story. She did, however, have to give up being a reporter. Curiously enough, her reportorial skills were then put to good work during the Depression, as she was assigned to the Federal Emergency Relief Association. She spent the better part of four years traveling the country and writing reports about the horrifying effects of the losses of jobs and income on the ordinary people.
For younger readers who might be inclined to think the world has always been as it is now, I loved this paragraph describing the 1939 World’s Fair from page 242.
‘There would be fluorescent lights, nylon stockings, and artificially generated bolts of lightning. There would be a twelve-foot-high electric shaver, electronic milking machines, and robots with movable fingers and their own intentions. In one pavilion, an aproned “Mrs. Drudge” would plod through her kitchen chores the old-fashioned way, while “Mrs. Modern” (wearing a revealing red cocktail dress and a stylish perm) would fry an egg in thirty seconds in her revolutionary microwave oven and breeze through the kitchen chores with her amazing Westinghouse electric dishwasher. In the same pavilion, a strange new semicircular sofa would transform the Living Room of Tomorrow into a home theater, so the American family could watch the greatest miracle of all, the RCA television set.’
Of course, first one must have been able to pay the 75-cent admission fee! The love story between E. R. and Hick is not salacious in any way or form, but interwoven very closely in the history of the 30s and 40s, the Depression, the War, and plenty of political shenanigans. A lot like this year, in fact. In my opinion, this book could be read and enjoyed by anyone. It will definitely be on my list of best books of 2016.
First and foremost, Kelly is a reader, then a writer and editor. She adores Regency-set novels, and cozy mysteries. Every now and then, however, she finds something else to enjoy if it has a great premise with characters who belong in there, and fabulous writing! She writes under her own name, as well as her pen-name, Hetty St. James.
Review copy was provided by Ballantine Books. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.