Book Review: White Houses

by Amy Bloom

“I loved being the brave and battered little dinghy. She loved being the lighthouse. It worked for both of us.”

White Houses coverFranklin D. Roosevelt was the 32nd President of the United States, a fact I’m sure all good American school children could instantly spout, should they be asked. Even as a British citizen born 20 years after his death, FDR was a familiar historical figure, along with his wife Eleanor, because of the central role they played in the Second World War.

Naturally, I knew all about Winston Churchill, our Prime Minister during Britain’s darkest days, though he had died the year I was born, but Hitler, Roosevelt, Stalin and Mussolini were commonly known personalities from the past. More surprisingly, perhaps, was that a Welsh child of the 1970s could identify a former US President’s spouse. With the exception of Jackie Kennedy, these women were almost invisible, not sufficiently recognisable for us even to describe them as their husband’s sidekicks. At best they were viewed by the wider world as simpering subservients, if we bothered to think about them at all. Not so, Eleanor Roosevelt. She was a ‘character’ – a feisty, indomitable, outspoken woman who worked tirelessly for the underdog. Even I knew she was a person held in high regard.

Born in 1884, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt (she preferred to use her middle name) was the daughter of New York socialites and a niece of President Theodore Roosevelt. Her family was immensely rich and privileged, but she lost her mother to diphtheria at the age of only eight, and her alcoholic father died two years later after throwing himself from a window during a fit of delirium tremens. She was raised in the household of her maternal grandmother, where she was starved of affection and criticized for being unattractive, which left her prone to depression for the rest of her life. However, by the age of 14, she had obviously realised that physical beauty wasn’t everything. She wrote: “no matter how plain a woman may be if truth and loyalty are stamped upon her face all will be attracted to her.” She was right. Eleanor went on to be a successful politician, diplomat, activist and the longest serving First Lady of the United States of America. Many believe Franklin couldn’t have done it without her.

In her novel, White Houses, Amy Bloom explores a close friendship that developed between Eleanor and the journalist Lorena Hickock, the daughter of a dressmaker and a dairy farmer, who was raised in East Troy, Wisconsin. She had endured a childhood of isolation and abuse, but defied all odds, and by 1932 was the nation’s best-known female reporter, having beaten down a great many barriers that had traditionally kept women out of the industry. In 1928, she was assigned by Associated Press to interview Eleanor Roosevelt, and went on to cover FDR’s presidential campaign from his wife’s viewpoint. The women began a long, loving and (according to Bloom) deeply intimate relationship, the true nature of which has long been subject to debate.

So how authentic is the narrative of White Houses? Well, in the author’s own words she: “worked from the particulars and facts of geography, chronology, customs, and books by actual historians.” She does nevertheless stress that the book is complete fiction.

As to the likelihood of a passionate relationship developing between the women, we know, for instance, that Roosevelt was close friends with a number of lesbian couples; that she wore a sapphire ring Lorena had given her; and kept her friend’s picture on the wall in her study. It is also known that the women loathed to be parted, and that Lorena (who had enjoyed physical relationships with a number of women during her life) adored Eleanor. Indeed, the letters they exchanged when apart appear to leave little doubt that they were lovers.

Bloom says she was “inspired” by Blanche Wiesen Cook’s critically praised 1992 Eleanor Roosevelt biography, in which it was claimed the relationship between the women was unquestionably romantic.

As to the novel itself, it is narrated in Hickock’s (‘Hick’ to her friends) unique voice, switching between her colourful early life, The White House years, and eventual old-age leading to loss. We are carried along by the flow and rhythm of the women’s conversation, which is sometimes immensely funny and upbeat, occasionally sad, bitter or angry, but mostly affectionate and respectful.

White Houses is a remarkably intimate, deeply sympathetic portrayal of a forbidden love that flourished directly under the disapproving noses of the Establishment. It’s an incredible yet perfectly credible story. I found it well researched, perceptive and a pleasure to read.

Many thanks to Granta Publications for providing an advance review copy of this title.

“You are the dark and sparkling sea and the salt, drying tight on my skin, under a bright, bleaching sun.”

 



Categories:Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, LGBTQ

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

29 replies

  1. I’ve been eyeing this one. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m intrigued by the personal aspect of this review. As someone with a close relative who was brought up in Wales, I always assumed that Welsh people were generally more politically astute than the English. This theory took a slight blow with the unfortunate Brexit results on both sides of the border, but was given new validation (in my view) by the voting patterns at the last general election. I suppose Lloyd George and Aneurin Bevan make most of us assume that the Welsh ‘get’ politics in a way that the English often fail to do. So I’m unsurprised that you knew all about the political figures as a child. My childhood was haunted by the preposterous Ronald Reagan, so I sympathise with people traumatised by Trump. The Roosevelts were clearly in a different league to the man with small hands. Another great review, and a reminder that politics can be personal.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Cheep. Well, I definitely didn’t vote for Brexit, and felt quite let down by those who did. I grew up in a fairly politicised household, and tended to mix with people who had strong opinions, so I’m bound to say that we’re more on the ball in Wales. Is it true, though? I’m not sure. I’ve heard Welsh people say all sorts of silly (to me) things, so perhaps we’re not so different from the English after all. I do feel that younger people are starting to take more notice of politics again – after being rather too comfortable for it to mean anything to them for many years. Oh yes, the Ronald Reagan era. They were my Maggie Thatcher years. It was a wonderful period for satirists. Somehow you knew who the enemy was in those days – I don’t think it’s always so easy to tell now. I don’t think anyone over here knows what to make of Trump!

      Liked by 1 person

      • The book sounds intriguing 🙂 I do agree that politics is coming back to people’s lifes, whether they want it or not, on both sides of the pond. Whether this is a good thing, that’s another story though!

        Liked by 2 people

      • Thanks for your response, OlaG. I think it’s definitely good that people are once again taking notice of the world outside their front doors. The reasons for them doing so aren’t quite so good. I’m afraid the old Chinese curse has come to pass: May you live in interesting times!

        Like

    • Though I now live in Wales I’m not Welsh, and can’t speak with authority about the country’s vaunted astuteness when it comes to politics. But I do think that much of the ignorance in, particularly, the South Wales valleys regarding matters like the role the EU has played in funding infrastructure, community and education projects can be traced to the malaise that arose with the devastation of the Thatcher years when there was no real attempt at new job creation or regeneration. When a people have little hope it’s easy for them to look for a scapegoat which unscrupulous politicians can provide.

      That sounds damning but it’s not meant to be. Industrial South Wales was alway political and keen on education, hence miners institutes and workers educational institutes and eisteddfodau and so on. Once these sorts of things are devalued, underfunded or cut, the resulting vacuum is easily filled by the vagaries of social media and the rumour mill.

      Sorry, off on a rant there. If indeed there is light at the end of the tunnel then it may indeed be the young who will have a crucial part to play.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m in complete agreement with you, Chris. I too feel that the rot started to set in during the Thatcher era. People voted to leave the EU for all the wrong reasons and, as you say, politicians encouraged them to unfairly blame whole sections of our society for the austerity drive. It’s a dreadful muddle. I don’t blame you having a rant – I’m always on my soap box for one reason or another these days!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Loved your review and am looking forward to reading the book. The women of presidents are so often forgotten but sometimes have the most interesting story.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This sounds great! I always knew about Eleanor Roosevelt/Jackie Kennedy as a child as well, but then I grew up partly in the US, so I guess I ought to have done…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Sounds interesting. Great review.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. An excellent review with lots of historical detail. My briefer review is below:
    Love happens in all places, at all times and, hopefully, for all people. Each person’s story includes joy, heartache and changes over time.
    Amy Bloom’s novel is both universal and specific regarding relationships, as she writes about Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok, largely from Lorena’s point of view. Their coming together and moving apart is richly imagined as is the era in U.S. history. With appearances by FDR, Missy LeHand and others, historical personages are shown with both their strengths and flaws. This novel evoked many feelings. Definitely a book worth reading.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I think I want to try this one. I like the time period and characters.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. This throws a light on a fascinating period’s personalities, even if fictionalised. Thanks for drawing attention to the background, Paula!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. This definitely doesn’t sound like a book I would enjoy – I’m more of a fast-paced thriller/horror lover myself – but your review is amazing! It really grabbed me and kept me reading even though I know I won’t read the novel. It’s definitely a book I know I could recommend to someone though 🙂 So thanks for introducing me to it!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Eleanor is one of the women I most admire but I was very disappointed in her autobiography which seemed to be to be formulaic and written to order. There seemed to be so much unsaid. I always intended to read the biography you mention too, perhaps the 3-volume length puts me off. Which is a preamble into the fact that I’m very interested in this fictionalised account, Paula 🙂 Thanks for this great review!

    Like

    • Thank you, Sandra. I suppose Eleanor wouldn’t have dared been too forthcoming in her autobiography. I imagine it would be second nature to leave certain things unsaid in those days. I haven’t read Blanche Wiesen Cook’s biography either, but would quite like to do so (as usual, it’s a case of finding the time).They were both such fascinating women.

      Like

  11. This sounds absolutely fascinating. Your entire post was very insightful and I’ll be adding this book onto my to-read list now! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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