Some stories need to be told at the right time. This is especially true for narratives about people breaking new ground or living outside of traditional societal norms.
Today, it’s not unusual for women to hold positions of power in the public sphere, or to be in leadership roles in the workforce. And, same-sex couples are now generally accepted—even celebrated—in modern America. But society was different in 1978 when Lorena Hickok’s correspondence with Eleanor Roosevelt was unsealed at the FDR library. Over 3,000 letters documented the couple’s friendship and romance that spanned decades. A same-sex romance in the White House in the 1930s? Shocking.
But we live in a different era. Now, I think Susan Wittig Albert’s novel, Loving Eleanor, will be welcomed and cherished by readers. 2016 is the right time to tell this story. And it is, in fact, a story. The author makes it clear that Loving Eleanor is her own interpretation of the intimacy between Hick and Eleanor (ER, as she is nicknamed in the novel). [Scroll down to read my Q&A with Susan Wittig Albert. I mean, read the whole review—it’s great!—but don’t miss the Q&A at the end.]
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Loving Eleanor charmed me on many levels. Susan Wittig Albert draws from history and an incredible letter collection to imagine how romance developed between Lorena Hickock and Eleanor Roosevelt in extraordinary circumstances. Lorena Hickock, or Hick, the first female AP reporter, first met Eleanor in 1928 during FDR’s bid for governor of New York. From their early interactions to their intimate affair in the 1930s to their friendship that lasted until ER’s death in 1962, the novel covers a lot of ground.
Before I opened the book, I knew the basic premise that Eleanor Roosevelt had a very close female friend that may or may not have been platonic. But this novel is much more than a history lesson or exposé. The writing is compelling and I was quickly wrapped up in the characters—how they found privacy in a political fishbowl, why they risked so much for each other, and the compromises they made to find a space for their unconventional relationship and ambitions.
Will you like it?
Do you like historical fiction? Do you like a fresh take on an old story? Do you like to learn about women succeeding and making a difference against the odds? If you like all those elements, then I believe you will adore this novel. I love historical fiction, and this book is certainly in my all-time favorites list.
I would be surprised if readers don’t find themselves rooting for Hick. While the author takes care to develop both women—what they feel, how they dress, their faults—it’s Hick that stuck with me. Growing up in poverty, Hick became a respected reporter on the national scene with a byline picked up around the country. Flawed, yes, but her combination of grit and warmth hooked me.
Is this a good book club pick?
I give a qualified yes. The author is skilled at bringing the women and the time period to life. From the nuanced writing to the fresh insights on the incredible poverty in the 1930s, there’s much to love and discuss. I believe the novel will spark rich conversations about historical opportunities for women, how attitudes toward same-sex relationships have changed over time, and ways women still encounter challenges in the workforce and in their private lives. That said, conservative readers may not enjoy reading about a lesbian romance, in particular, an affair involving the well-loved (but perhaps not well-understood) historical figure of Eleanor Roosevelt. To each their own, but to me love is love is love.
Would it make a good gift?
This is funny, because I already have plans to purchase this novel for several friends. So, yes, I think Loving Eleanor is a great gift for lovers of history and well-behaved women that definitely made an impact. You only have a short wait. It’s scheduled for a February, 2016 publish date.
More to the story—Q&A with Susan Wittig Albert
Q. Both Eleanor Roosevelt and Hick have complex, interesting personalities. If you were able to spend a day with either Eleanor or Hick, which lady would you choose, and why?
A. Oh, dear. I don’t want to choose! I’ll have both, please. But if I had to pick one, I think I’d choose Hick. I’d love to ask her what it was like to work in that AP office back in the late 20s, and I would very much like to know more about her later life, which isn’t well documented. She wasn’t perfect, but she was a very brave woman who rolled up her sleeves and made her way in a challenging world without a lot of help from others.
Q. Do you think Hick made the right decision to seal the letters, only to be opened several years after her death?
A. I do indeed—although I wish she’d left them sealed for 30 or 40 years, instead of just ten. I think the social climate would have been different. People would have been more understanding than they were in 1978. And it was really unfortunate that they had to be opened when Doris Faber was there. People shouldn’t write biographies about people whom they dislike—and Doris Faber disliked Hick from the moment she opened the letters.
Q. What access did you have to their letters? Were you able to handle the letters and read them at your leisure? If so, what was that like?
A. The letters are available to researchers at the Roosevelt Presidential Library, where I read many of them. (There are over 3,300!) Reading was like listening in on a long, intimate conversation, with fascinating references to people and places of the times. I read the letters with respect, remembering how profoundly ER has influenced so many of us and how Hick influenced, mentored, and supported her. As I mention in the reading list at the back of the book, some of the letters are also available in a published collection called Empty Without You, edited by Rodger Streitmatter.
Q. How did you decide to end your book? Why did you decide to not write about the women and their careers post-FDR?
A. I wrote about those post-FDR years, but not as part of the fiction; instead, I chose to tell the rest of the story in a non-fiction afterword. The focus of the fictional story was the years in which the two women were the centers of each other’s lives; after FDR’s death, when ER became “First Lady of the World” (in President Truman’s phrase), they moved in different orbits, around different centers. I wanted to emphasize that difference by telling that part of the story in a different voice—mine, not Hick’s.
Q. We live in a time now where same-sex marriage is legal and widely accepted. If ER and Hick had the luxury of today’s legal and social constructs, do you think they would have married after FDR’s death?
A. I don’t think they would have married at that point. If it had been possible to marry (FDR and the legal system notwithstanding), I think it would have occurred in 1933 or even 1934, when they were most intimately involved, and before ER began to find so many different ways to put her energies to work. If they had married then, I believe that they would have lived together for the rest of their lives, making accommodations for the needs and desires of each.
Q. Both ER and Hick were high-achievers. What accomplishments are most inspiring to you?
A. Both of them were extraordinarily brave. Hick was a ground-breaking journalist who came from a poor, unprivileged background and used her skills to write about strong women achievers, even as she was suffering from severe diabetes, at a time when the disease was so difficult to control. ER was a strong, ground-breaking woman who used her position to help others, while she fought her dragons—her deep doubts and fears.
Book review disclaimer
I received an advance reading copy of Loving Eleanor. I was not compensated in any other way for my review.