Friday, 30 September 2011

Hazel Rowley's Franklin and Eleanor: An extraordinary marriage

It was pretty much a full house when Minervans met this week to discuss Australian biographer Hazel Rowley's last book, Franklin and Eleanor: An extraordinary marriage. Ten members turned up - with the only absentee being the person who first suggested it. We're not complaining though, because everyone, it appears, enjoyed the book. One, in fact, admitted secretly to preferring biography to fiction; some were surprised by how much they enjoyed it. The overall comment was that it was readable, engaging.

We started our discussion with our absent member's comment on our Facebook event page. She wrote that:
It is a beautiful piece of writing which shows just what an extraordinary period of change that first half of the 20th century proved. However, I did miss some of that Janet Malcolm style of careful consideration of where the biographer fits in with the story...

None of us had read Janet Malcolm (though we checked her on Wikipedia) and so were not quite sure exactly what Helen meant. Helen, if you read this post, please tell us in a comment!

Eleanor Roosevelt's White House Portrait
(Public Domain,  courtesy US Government via Wikipedia)
Being women, we probably focused more of our discussion on Eleanor. Reasons we liked the book included the description of the rich (not as in "wealthy" though they were that too) lives they led, and the fact the Eleanor was a multi-dimensional, sophisticated person who could interact with many peoples on many levels. We discussed how driven she was by her mission - which mostly related to social justice issues such as equality and respect for black Americans.

We of course commiserated with Eleanor over Franklin's betrayal of her with Lucy Mercer in 1918 and discussed why they stayed together. Rowley gives pragmatic reasons - his mother threatened disinheritance, his political advisers said it would be the end of his political aspirations - but also suggests that there was love and affection between them, and that Franklin "still loved Eleanor; he knew how much he needed her". In the preface Rowley describes their marriage as "a joint endeavour, a partnership". It certainly seems it must have been that, as they stayed together for 40 years, until Franklin's death in 1945. However, we also wondered whether Eleanor's insistence on retaining Mrs Nesbitt as the White House housekeeper - the White House during their unusually long occupation was renowned for its indifferent cuisine - was a passive-aggressive act on her part, though others suggested it was simply that Eleanor didn't care much about food.

One member admitted that Eleanor had the life she would like to lead. Others weren't quite so sure.

We liked the description quoted near the end of Eleanor's blend of "naiveté and cunning".

We touched on some issues relating to the writing of biography, such as the challenge Rowley had in teasing out fact from mythmaking, particularly given some of the primary sources were written with a view to future public use. We felt Rowley was not judgemental but maintained an even-handed tone throughout, despite appearing to be more interested in Eleanor. Perhaps this focus is due to the fact that there are more primary records for Eleanor's part of the marriage. She, for example, kept a diary and wrote her "My Day" column for the newspaper, while Franklin kept no journal. I felt that while it was well-researched, and well-written, there was something missing, something Rowley probably didn't (couldn't) know regarding just what was the "glue" that kept them together. How much was real affection and how much pragmatism? That's something we'll never really know though the evidence Rowley presents tends to suggest mostly the former despite the myriad other romantic friendships and relationships each had. It really was an extraordinary marriage.

Being Australians, many felt they did not fully comprehend the history of the period. We recognised though that Rowley's book was not intended to be a history but an analysis of the marriage. Having lived in the USA, I said that there is still evidence today of Franklin's New Deal, and particularly the work of the CCC and WPA programs in and around the National Parks and some of the major scenic roads. Susan said she had visited Hyde Park, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. She said it was beautiful and fascinating, though also carefully curated (if you know what she means!).

A couple of us commented on the lovely accolades given on FDR's death. We particularly liked this one:
'His face was the very image of happiness,' Albert Camus wrote in the French Resistance newspaper, Combat. 'History's powerful men are not generally men of such good humour ... There is not a single free human being who does not regret his loss and who would not have wished his destiny to have continued a little longer. World peace, that boundless good, ought to be planned by men with happy faces rather than by sad-eyed politicians.'
And that seems as good a place as any to end this report. Comments anyone?

Friday, 2 September 2011

Caleb's Crossing or Bethia's Borders?

Our lively discussion about Geraldine Brooks' latest novel was sparked by Sue quoting a controversial review by Jocelyn McLurg in USA Today, whose irreverent review claimed 'it reads like a puritanical mash-up of Avatar meets Dances With Wolves'.

The story is based loosely on the story of Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, who in 1665 became the first Native American Harvard graduate, and is set in what is now called Martha's vineyard, (Wampanoag: Noepe) an island off the coast of Massachusetts, USA where Geraldine Brooks lives. The Minerva group found the book to be very readable and the story engaging.

We talked about her use of the female protagonist Bethia, and whether she spoke with a 21st century voice, or indeed Geraldine's voice. Other members argued that there was evidence of outspoken women at the time, and her feminist attitude while unusual was not unbelievable. She was the most fleshed out character, although her fate took a number of twists and turns, sometimes it seemed only to serve Brooks' narrative needs - eg in being indentured to the school, and then falling for Samuel.
We talked about the romance in the book, and whether Bethia and Caleb had a romantic attraction. Most agreed that the romance was a let down, and we didn't feel a strong emotional engagement with the characters. Caleb especially was seen as a shadowy character, particularly as the book progressed, so that we don't really get to know him.

We agreed that her capturing the sense of place was very successful, that she knew that environment well, and had as usual researched her background and characters well. Her understanding of the Indian dwelling Bethia went to and 'sank into the furs' was very believable, and we found out based on Geraldine's own experience. She certainly is inspired by places she lives to delve into the background to find the stories.

We talked of her use of language in using words from Wiltshire dialect, like 'shakedown' ... Sue commented that she was not entirely consistent, and thought her use of the term 'going forward' had a modern jargon association.

We touched on religion and it's constraints and the references to Satan and evil in relation to the pawaw's activities and seeming command of the forces of nature. However Bethia's father had his own reputation for magic healing when it seemed he could save the Indian sonquen Nahnoso from illness, a reputation shortlived when the sonquen succumbed to smallpox.

We explored the use of the title Caleb's Crossing...what was being crossed and what the significance was. Some thought Geraldine had a more straightforward motivation in simply telling a story that intrigued her. Others felt that she was examining the notion of crossing cultures, and the cost and difficulty of such a crossing, both by Caleb..who paid for it in his death, and by Bethia and her family who had a tough life in coming to a new country. Geraldine's own experience in having adopted a son from Ethiopia had also sensitized her to the needs to adapt and learn language and ways of a new culture. She refers to the importance of retaining the association with her son's original culture. In Caleb's case he really had to choose to abandon much of his Wampanoag life in order to be accepted in white society.

A stimulating discussion. A number of the group had heard Brooks interviewed and admired and enjoyed her tales about how she finds and researches the stories she writes...almost more engaging than her actual novel??