I can’t remember the last time I read a novel starring a middle-aged woman. In fact, since I started in 2017 to review books, I haven’t read a single one. How lovely, then, to discover that Amy Bloom has written a novel that stars not one but two little old ladies.
White Houses is a fictional account of the love affair between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok. They met in their 40s while Hickok was a reporter for Associated Press. She had just covered the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and needed to cool down. Her editor sent Hickok to interview the wife of a presidential candidate. Franklin Delano Roosevelt: we think he might make it to the White House.
Bloom stumbled across the story of Eleanor and Hickok while researching her novel Lucky Us. That novel was set in 1940s US, an era defined by the Roosevelts. In the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library, Bloom found 18 boxes of letters between the First Lady and her First Friend, 3000 in all. Hickok had willed the letters to the FDR Library under the condition that they remain sealed for 10 years after Hickok’s death.
But first, Hickok burned most of Eleanor’s letters written in the early days of their romance. Hickok didn’t think that Eleanor had been discreet enough or that America was ready to hear what a pair of little old ladies might get up to. Bloom has no such qualms. She gives voice to all the passion her fictional Hick can summon.
Every woman’s body is an intimate landscape. The hills, the valleys, the narrow ledges, the riverbanks, the sudden eruptions of soft or crinkling hair. Here are the plains, the fine dry slopes. Here are the woods, here is the smooth path to the only door I wish to walk through. Eleanor’s body is the landscape of my true home.Amy Bloom, White Houses (Granta Publications 2017)
The real Lorena Hickock moves into the White House. She quits her job as a reporter. She’s hired by Harry Hopkins to report on the devastation of the Great Depression and the first attempts at recovery known as the New Deal.
Hickok’s reports reach the President and First Lady but not the general public. Bloom corrects that historical oversight with her fictional Hick.
A girl, skinny and still flat-chested, saw my fedora and my coat and smelled my cigarettes. She said, Mister, I costs you a dime. I said, It was all right, I’d give her the dime if she went home. She put out her filthy hand for the dime and walked up to the next corner, making sure I wasn’t following and cutting into business.
Hick and her Eleanor dream of the day when they can retreat to their own little white house. In this dream, the war would end and Franklin would retire. They’d all live at Hyde Park. He’d get the cottage in the woods while Hick and Eleanor would live in Val-Kill
cozying up on the porch, in matching cardigans, with a pile of books to be read and thick notebooks, for the books we’d write.
Even as the fictional Hick and Eleanor are ecstatically, extravagantly, head-over-heels in love, some part of Hick can’t believe it will last. History books tell us that Franklin died in office, just months before the war ended. Eleanor retreated to Val-Kill but Hickok was not at her side, at least not in the same way.
Lots of folks will say that, over the course of a long relationship, the joy of sex will burn itself out. In its place, if you’re lucky, will come an even brighter love. Bloom gives hope to all us little old ladies. Her Hick believes in love and sex til death do us part.
I think that even if you are both old ladies riding side by side on the Second Avenue subway, with one of you going home to three grandchildren and a doddering husband, you can lock eyes, and remember when you weren’t. You remember that very pleasurable and surprising thing that was done to you by the wrinkly bag of bones next to you and you breathe in memory the weight and the mortality and the sensible shoes are just costume, falling away, and your real selves rise up, briefly, dancing rosy and naked, in the middle of the subway car.
28 June 2020 | Karen Kao