White Houses

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Read 24/07/2018-29/07/2018

Rating: 5 stars

I don’t recall who brought Amy Bloom’s White Houses to my attention, but I’m grateful. Since my first degree I have had a history crush on FDR. It was later that I developed a separate history crush on Eleanor.

Bloom’s book is an imagining of Lorena Hickok’s relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt. The prologue got me thinking about being in thrall to love. Or maybe the feeling of falling in love. There’s nothing like the sensation of being potentially known, wanting but not wanting to be discovered, the secret whisper of now but not quite now. Falling for someone, standing on the uncertain ground of requitement, feeling the surge, the lurch, the plummeting thrill. The prologue describes a servitude, a willingness to be summoned and cast aside and summoned again. Hickok, Hick to her friends, isn’t a weak woman. She’s a journalist of some renown. But she is in thrall to being desired by a singular woman. She is bound by the thought that she might be needed.

And as to the woman she loves, these lines sum up why I have my own crush on her.

The function of democratic living is not to lower standards but to raise those that have been too low.

We saw each other every week of the campaign and I liked what I saw so much, I offered to cover her full-time for the Associated Press as Roosevelt’s race for the White House heated up … I liked her height and her energy. I liked her long loose stride and her progressive principles. She insulted conservatives and cowards every time she opened her mouth and I wrote it all down.

This is a book about love in all its forms, from Eleanor’s dedication to Franklin in his illness and as First Lady, to her love for Hick and Hick’s love for her, to the childhood encounters that Hick has with love, or lust or brutality, that convince her that men are not for her. It’s about the purity of love and the hardship love brings, the being together and the being apart, and it’s about the way marital love isn’t for everyone. There was a piece on the weekend breakfast news  as I was reading the book about what makes a lasting relationship. The findings were common sense: friendship, a willingness to work at it, and an understanding that people change over time and with friendship and work the relationship can change too.

For Eleanor and Hick, it was about the realism that is needed when one person is married and closeted, the understanding that it would be necessary for them “to learn how to love and let go and yet keep loving.”

Towards the end of the book, after FDR’S death and all the hiding away that brought again for Hick, she realises that her love for Eleanor has changed over time. She loved her, she says, more easily at night than during the day, and something loved her more when she didn’t see her. During the day, she tells us, she and Eleanor are who they are and it’s too bad.

When they are alone, at night or before the day begins, they still work. Hick explains that what they have now, who they have become, is a different and good thing.

I bury my face between her shoulder blades. She reaches back to press my head to the base of her neck. This is the happiness I want. Not the tidal wave of early romance, swamping all the boats, carrying us to some impossible shore.

I’m on a different page here. I still love those romantic, first flush feelings. I miss them when they are gone, when love changes to something less bruising, or bruising in a different way. Another character says in a letter to Eleanor, “I want to be loved … and if I can’t have that, I want to be desired fiercely.” That’s not it either. Why not want both? Is being loved so incompatible with being desired fiercely?

The book covers the end of love, or rather the end of union, too. Eleanor and Hick reach the point where neither is happy, but both pretend that they want nothing but the happiness of the other, and yet neither wanted to be the first to end it, so nothing happened. A sort of waiting to see if things would sort themselves out.

With all the goodwill and dissembling in the world, we almost dumped each other a dozen times and still we couldn’t part. We stated the facts, over multiple breakfasts. We made observations. We summed things up, neatly, which was just like lying, and we both said that’s we would never stop loving each other, which was, unfortunately, absolutely true. We were determined to be the people we wanted to be and not the blind, desperate people we were.
Every few days, I said we needed to talk, and every few days, she said the same thing to me.

It’s universal, isn’t it? Western Christian culture sells marriage/monogamy/commitment as this great goal, the destination we should all be heading for, coupling with our soulmate forever. Till death us do part, instead of take every day as it comes. So when the day comes that says clearly, “You should end it now,” we don’t hear. Ending it is failure, somehow. Unhappiness in a pair is preferable to contentment alone.

And when the end comes but neither person will make the physical separation complete, inner conflict amplifies wounded pride.

I pretended every day to be Eleanor’s friend. I pretended to feel fond and calm, concerned but apart. There wasn’t any room for what I did feel, which was a sort of furious shame, run through with terrible strands of hope.

But enough about love. The book contains politics, too.

I really enjoyed the politics at the back of the love story. I studied FDR and his New Deal at university. He is my favourite US President. Always will be, I think, because he was President in a time that was right and ripe for his policies. And Eleanor was my favourite First Lady until Michelle Obama came along. In the current political climate, I think the world needs another FDR, for the reason Hick gives in her narrative about why Hoover and his belief in the marketplace resolving the Great Depression lost to Roosevelt.

Franklin came in on a tidal wave of decency and great speeches. (True individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.) The country had a leader. Hired girls had a hero.

That paragraph, that quote from FDR, made me want to stand in the most public space in the country and shout in the faces of those who don’t vote or who vote on the basis of the lies and spin that falls out of the mouths of politicians and their civil servants “Look. Look what their free market economics, their demonisation of the poor is doing. They are fostering the conditions for a dictatorship and you are complicit.”

My innate racism also got a slap in the face in a passage describing Hick’s coverage of conditions in the Dust Bowl. I’ve studied the history of this, too, and read The Grapes of Wrath (and here’s a list of other Dust Bowl fiction that I’ll investigate one day), and not once have I looked beyond the standard story of poor white people. Hick is from poor white South Dakota and Bloom has her say this:

I had my nose rubbed in my own racialism so often , and so hard, by meeting colored people who were so much worse off and had been hard done by for so much longer. Negro men and women, working from can to can’t, surrounded by a sea of hungry, wide-eyed children and at least one rail-thin, night-dark old lady in the corner, sitting like a seer in her one dress, all knowing that there was less chance they could climb out of this terrible canyon, and fewer people to reach for them as they did. I finally had to give it up and it hurt me, I tell you, to understand that the Hickocks of Bowdle, South Dakota, with shoes from a dead girl to wear on school days only and oatmeal for dinner, were lucky people.

Almost ninety years have passed and we are no closer to acknowledging that the poor aren’t just white, or that the poor are anything other than expendable in the march to prosperity for the few.

After Roosevelt’s death, Hick rightly worries about the future and the people who Franklin and Eleanor both championed. Her language reveals the racism of the time quite starkly.

I worried for the country. I worried for our soldiers. I worried for the poor, and the Negroes. I worried for the Jews, who hadn’t even been people to me, when I was a girl. Franklin didn’t do much for them but he wanted them safe, even if most of America didn’t give a damn, and I wasn’t sure Harry Truman worried much about people who were not like Harry Truman. I was sorry for us all … Franklin was a terrible husband and an unnerving friend and my rival and my president … He’d left us, in a half hour, between lunch and dinner, when we’d let down our guard and now we were all sick with grief. Those of us who knew him and needed him didn’t want to stop grieving, for fear we’d step forward, toward the future, and entirely lose the trace, the smell, and the feel of him.

This, too, is love. Love for a flawed man but a great political leader. Love for a friend. Love for a parent, a sibling, a person intimately known and yet unknowable.

I think this is a perfect book for me. So perfect that, when I had to return it to the library before I had finished reading it, I bought my own copy for my Kindle. I know that I will read it again.

There is a paragraph towards the end, when Hick is debating whether to attend Eleanor’s funeral, that made me smile because it’s how I deal with sorrow too.

Crying in public upsets people, Eleanor used to say. Her grandmother always told her to cry in the bathroom. Her grandmother said, if you have to cry, go to the bathroom and run the taps.

There is another paragraph, right at the end, that sums up the love between two people who have found the right person for them. I love it, so I’m ending this review with it.

The first thing that I knew in this world was that I was alone and unseen. Then I knew I was not. You are not just my port in the storm, which is what middle-aged women are supposed to be looking for. You are the dark and sparkling sea and the salt, drying tight on my skin, under a bright, bleaching sun. You are the school of minnows we walk through. You are the small fishing boat, the pros so faded you can hardly tell it’s blue. You are the violet skies, rain spattering the sand until it’s almost mud, and you are the light to come.

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