White Houses by Amy Bloom & Undiscovered Country by Kelly O’Connor McNees
Sometimes, entirely by coincidence, there are two novels about the same topic published at the same time. This spring we have two fascinating novels about Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok. The two women met in 1928, and remained friends for the rest of their lives. The most intimate of those years were just before and during the two presidential terms of Franklin Delano Roosevelt from 1933 -1945, and are those documented in White Houses by Amy Bloom and Undiscovered Country by Kelly O’Connor McNees.
During this time Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok wrote to each other frequently. After both women died in the 1960s the most explicit letters were destroyed, but the rest of their private correspondence was opened in 1998. This extensive archive of letters indicates that the friendship between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok was most certainly a passionately intimate one for many years.
Both Amy Bloom and Kelly O’Connor McNees re-imagine the relationship, writing about both the personal relationship, and the years in which it was at it’s most intense.
White Houses by Amy Bloom was released a few weeks earlier than Undiscovered Country so I read it first. The novel begins on a Friday afternoon, April 27, 1945 and ends on Monday morning, April 30, 1945, with a brief glimpse of Sunday, November 11, 1962, a few days after the death of Eleanor Roosevelt.
We begin just days before the end of the Second World War, but then quickly move to a time some years earlier. We meet Lorena Hickok, a journalist reporting on Franklin Roosevelt’s first presidential campaign in 1932. Lorena soon accepts a position with the Roosevelts, moving into the White House, and quickly becomes fast friends with Eleanor Roosevelt. They travel together, Lorena working as an investigative reporter with the Federal Emergency Relief, and Eleanor Roosevelt getting a look of the lives of Americans most affected by the Great Depression. They appear to be simply “middle-aged women who liked each other: sisters, cousins, best friends”.
Reading Undiscovered Country by Kelly O’Connor McNees a few weeks later, I found it a much more engaging and intimate portrait of the two women and their relationship. I immediately liked them both better than I had in the earlier novel. They are more fun when they are having fun, and more desperate when they are not. Franklin Roosevelt is also made more human, with his good looks and charisma evident. I had not been aware that Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt had what is now known as an “open marriage”, both having intimate relationships with many other partners who often lived with them in the White House.
Kelly O’Connor McNees has managed to breath life into her characters, in a way that I felt Amy Bloom was not. The story is the same, but better somehow. There is more passion, there is more adventure, and there are additional fictional characters who give the reader a sense of the true desperation of the Great Depression. The small towns with empty storefronts were as sad then as they are today in the many towns affected by closed mines and factories.
These two women came from completely different backgrounds, but felt an immediate attraction, enjoying each other’s intelligence and determination. Eleanor grew up in wealth, with a private school education, while Lorena fought to pull herself out of poverty. Their friendship, unequal as it was in many ways, provided them both with much happiness. They appear to have loved each other for the rest of their lives, though they often spent many years apart, often with other partners.
Both books tell the story of a same sex love affair between two women at a time when this was considered scandalous. Of course, they were not the only women – and men – who were having relationships outside of marriage, and not the only ones with same sex partners. But, if discovered the relationship would have destroyed careers and reputations.
White Houses by Amy Bloom and Undiscovered Country by Kelly O’Connor McNees give readers two different versions of the same story, making for an interesting exploration of the lives of two women and the time in which they lived. Historical fiction at its best.