Reading an advance copy of Susan Wittig Albert's Loving Eleanor was not only an eye-opening visit to the past, it was a delightful surprise. A long-time fan of the author, I expected the book to be good. So I settled in with a nice cup of tea on a rainy afternoon to travel back in time and learn more about Eleanor Roosevelt—an American icon I have admired over the years for her accomplishments and apparent strength of character. Like so many others, of course, I admit to a good bit of curiosity about her personal life as opposed to her public persona, and was looking forward to a peek into her more intimate relationships.
A few pages in, however, everything changed for me when I realized that the true heroine of this book was Lorena Hickok, Eleanor's one-time lover who eventually enjoyed an intensely close friendship with the famous first lady for more than three decades. Their relationship, like most, evolved over time, often becoming too complicated for both. Hick's love for Eleanor endured, and they remained devoted to each other over the years, as demonstrated by their incredible volume of correspondence. For decades, they wrote letters almost daily to share their experiences.
Although the book is noted as a work of fiction, Albert did her homework. Her research into the hundreds of letters exchanged by these two women along with interviews and more research at the FDR Presidential Library helped create a strong foundation for the novel with the ring of truth in her characters (both fictional and real) and the many stories within.
Many readers may be as surprised as I was when they realize that, at least in the beginning of their relationship, Hick rather than Eleanor was the strong one. Their story is told in Hick's voice as she becomes something of a mentor and advisor for Eleanor, whose self-confidence was at rock bottom when they met. Raised by a family who openly inferred that she was unattractive and a bother, Eleanor was in a marriage of apparent convenience rather than love and was completely intimidated by her mother-in-law, who seemed to run the show. Even though she found some professional success on her own as a teacher, writer and business owner, Eleanor was extremely nervous about her husband's political aspirations and the idea of having to live such a public life, much less eventually serve as First Lady.
Hick, an AP reporter in New York (the first female to hold that job), decided to interview Eleanor in 1928, when Franklin was running for governor of New York. From the first moment they met, Hick seemed to grasp Eleanor's need for a friend and advisor she could trust. She spent most of the rest of her life trying to fill that role in one capacity or another. Eleanor often heeded her advice and grew into one of the most dynamic women of the past century, eventually referred to as "First Lady of the World."
This is not just a love story between two women. It's an intimate visit to an era in American history filled with more challenges and potential for disaster than this country has faced before or since. Hick's descriptions of her work for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) reveal the agony and struggles endured by Americans during and after the Great Depression as she traveled across the country investigating the need for the money offered by the agency as an important part of Roosevelt's New Deal. Her account of activities within the White House, where she was living as Eleanor's guest, on the day Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941 was chilling. Comfort for her came with the words spoken by Eleanor during a radio interview that night... "Whatever is asked of us, we can accomplish it."
For unique insight into an incredible era and an appreciation of the triumphs and tribulations two people in love can bring into each other's lives, read this book. Maybe Hick will open your eyes a bit, too, just as she did mine.
Read an excerpt from this book.
In 1985, Susan left her career as a university English professor and administrator and began working fulltime as a novelist. Her 50-plus books include the best-selling China Bayles mysteries, the Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter, and the Robin Paige Victorian/Edwardian mysteries written with her husband, Bill Albert. Working together, the Alberts have also written over 60 young adult novels. Susan's latest project is a series of historical mysteries, The Darling Dahlias, set in the 1930s.
Susan's earlier nonfiction work includes Work of Her Own, a study of women who left their careers, and Writing From Life: Telling Your Soul's Story, a guidebook for women memoirists. That book led to the founding of the Story Circle Network in 1997. She has edited two anthologies for the Story Circle Network: With Courage and Common Sense (2004) and What Wildness Is This: Women Write about the Southwest (2007).
She is also the author of two memoirs: Together, Alone: A Memoir of Marriage and Place (2009) and An Extraordinary Year of Ordinary Days (2010), both published by the University of Texas Press. She is working on a collection of essays entitled Unfinished Places. She has three children, eight grandchildren, and three great-grandsons. She and Bill live in the Texas Hill Country, where she writes, gardens, and raises a varying assortment of barnyard creatures. Visit her website and the book's website.
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