Thursday, September 4, 2014

Impossibly plausible: The problem with reviewing historical fiction

In May 1933 Eleanor Roosevelt wrote to her president husband, Franklin, of an unusual experience she’d had with a ‘young tramp’. The man was Al Kresse and he had approached the First Lady in a gas station and asked for ten dollars. Struck by his sincerity, intelligence and sense of humour, Mrs Roosevelt obliged. She also gave Kresse her card and asked him to call on her at her East 65th St home in Manhattan. She believed she could help him find a job.

Eleanor Roosevelt did in real life what one
reviewer of The President's Lunch has said was implausible
A couple of days later, Kresse did just that. When Mrs Roosevelt came home that afternoon the doorman told her that ‘a bum had been hanging around saying Mrs Roosevelt told him to meet her … I don’t know where he could have got that calling card of yours.’ Glancing along the sidewalk, Mrs Roosevelt saw him standing on the corner. She invited him to dinner and arranged a job for him in the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of her husband’s New Deal initiatives. Before long Kresse had risen in the ranks to a managerial position, married and had children. He was a frequent dinner guest at the White House and he made Eleanor Roosevelt godmother to his daughter. Kresse and Eleanor Roosevelt were close friends until her death in 1962.

This is historical fact and the premise for my novel, The President’s Lunch. But instead of Eleanor being approached by a young unemployed male, she is confronted in a gas station by a young unemployed female, Iris McIntosh. I have taken historical record and used it as the foundations for a tale of what might have happened.

According to a recent review of The President’s Lunch in The Canberra Times, this was just one of many ‘implausible moments’ in the story. Perhaps such an encounter would be considered implausible in our world, so shielded is Michelle Obama from the likes of Al Kresse or Iris McIntosh. But in 1933 it was entirely possible. It actually happened.

Eleanor Roosevelt despised travelling with the Secret Service in tow and it wasn’t until Roosevelt’s second term when she yielded slightly and allowed agents to follow her own car at a distance. If the reviewer had done just a little research into Eleanor Roosevelt then this occurrence would not have seemed implausible at all.

A fierce champion of the underdog and the underprivileged, Mrs Roosevelt was a feminist long before it was fashionable. In fact, she was unconventional in many ways. Her relationship with the journalist Lorena Hickok (who lived for periods in the White House) and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s long-time love affair with his secretary Missy LeHand are matters of historical record. Among White House insiders these relationships were no secret. Today, one would define the Roosevelt’s marriage as ‘open’.

Eleanor Roosevelt described it as such herself in her 1960 book, You Learn By Living. In it she accepts her failure to ‘meet the need of someone whom I dearly love’. Then offers this advice: ‘You must learn to allow someone else to meet the need, without bitterness or envy, and accept it; or somehow you must make yourself learn to meet it.’ Love triangles forming in the West Wing might seem implausible, but they happened.

In The Presidents Lunch, Iris McIntosh is invited into this unconventional environment by the First Lady. When she begins work as a secretarial assistant, Iris finds the relationships shocking. But over the years as she is educated in the ways of politics and power by the Roosevelts and climbs the ladder of success, the unorthodox lifestyle of the First Couple becomes entirely normal to her. Consequently, she becomes involved in a love triangle of her own. Iris McIntosh is a determined, intelligent and compassionate woman, just like Eleanor Roosevelt, and she embarks on romantic journeys with two men not because she finds it ‘titillating’ as the reviewer suggests, but because Iris genuinely believes neither man is able to meet her emotional needs entirely.

Some might see this as cold or greedy, but I view it as an issue of empowerment and Iris has been educated by the most powerful and forward-thinking couple in the world. Iris isn’t a ‘flip-flopping’ romantic. Iris is feminist in her thinking and unwilling, despite the consequences, to accept the limitations of her sex just as her First Lady mentor, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary and Scarlett O’Hara refuse to cede to society’s rules regarding the acceptable behaviour of women. Why should Iris sacrifice one part of herself?

Yes, all of this seems implausible today. Under constant media scrutiny, the Obamas could never live like the Roosevelts. Eleanor and Franklin enjoyed the luxury of an ethical press whose code of conduct forbade them from reporting on the personal life of politicians.

If this is the worst that a misguided reviewer at The Canberra Times can accuse The President’s Lunch of, then I’m chuffed. And I’m also in good company. Reviewers often have a hard time with the stranger-than-fiction real-life storylines in historical fiction novels. Even the doyenne of historical fiction, author Hilary Mantel, was condemned by critic James Wood of the New Yorker for writing ‘the plausibly hypothetical’, and Dame Hilary has won two Man-Booker prizes.

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