If you’re the type of person who likes “real” historical novels, ones that peer into the lives of actual historical figures directly, rather than looking at famous or infamous people through made up characters who happen to orbit around them, and if you’re interested in the era of the 1930’s and 1940’s in America, then we have a new book for you! It’s Amy Bloom’s newest novel, White Houses, and it tells the story of Lorena Hickok and her relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt.
Amy Bloom is an excellent writer, and fond of historical fiction. Her last book, Lucky Us, followed a rather eccentric pair of sisters through the world of 1940’s America, and it was a fun read, filled with historical detail and fascinating characters.
Lorena Hickok, known as “Hick”, has become known to the general public, if obliquely, through Ken Burns’ television series about the Roosevelt family, but she was more than just a footnote to the Roosevelts’ marriage. She was, as White Houses demonstrates, a fascinating person in her own right, a woman who started out with nothing and made herself into one of the prominent journalists of the era, which was, it’s worth noting, not an era in which women were assumed to be able to do the same kind of work as men.
Her relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt, which started when Hick was covering FDR’s first run for the presidency in 1932, forms the spine of the book. The two women were very different: Hick was outgoing and brash, as she had to be in order to make a success of herself in a man’s world, whereas Eleanor was kind of shy and introverted, unsure whether she had what it took to be the wife of the most powerful man in the world. And while they had to hide the true nature of their “special friendship”, due to the rampant homophobia of the period, this book leaves no doubt that this was love, deep and powerful, shaping their lives.
Hick, our point of view character, had a bird’s eye view of everything that went on in the White House, from Eleanor’s daily routine to FDR’s relationship with his lover, to the behavior of FDR and Eleanor’s children (spoiler alert: they do not come off well in this telling), and seeing things through her intelligent and observant eyes gives us a different perspective on one of the most well known periods of American history.
If you’re doing the Field Library Reading Challenge this year, this book counts for the category of “Read a Book about the Great Depression” (as you can see, I’m pretty loose and forgiving about what fits in particular categories), but you don’t need an excuse to read this lovely historical novel about two extraordinary women.