Here’s my May column. It ran in today’s Concord Monitor, minus the last sentence for some reason (probably space, although they made room in the layout of the print edition for photos of each of the book covers). Here it is in its entirety.
The Woman Who Helped Shape the New Deal
Phillips Exeter Academy history teacher Michael Golay’s new book, America 1933:The Great Depression, Lorena Hickok, Eleanor Roosevelt and the Shaping of the New Deal is the story of Lorena Hickok’s exhaustive reporting in 1933-34 for Harry Hopkins at the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. Hickock was an intrepid traveler, visiting relief and work programs and talking to “people from all walks of life” all over the country. Her work is “. . . an incomparable narrative record . . . of America in the depths of the Great Depression.”
Golay explains Hickok and Eleanor Roosevelt were “close.” Hickok even lived in Eleanor’s quarters at the White House. Quotes from letters between Eleanor and Hickock portray a talented, assertive reporter whose intimate friendship with the First Lady brought relief from the travails of her work. Golay speculates that publicity surrounding their attempt to take a quiet vacation together in 1934 may have cooled Eleanor’s feelings. But the focus of America 1933 is “Hickok’s historical legacy . . . her influence on Hopkins’s welfare and jobs policies in a time when, for millions of ordinary people, a little help from the larger community meant the difference between hunger and subsistence, numb despair and a stirring of hope.”
Golay notes “it would be an exaggeration to portray Hickok as an observer gifted with keen political insight,” but he clearly admires her determination and “astonishing capacity for work.” America 1933 illuminates her vivid reporting and its importance to policy makers. Golay offers a highly detailed, richly referenced portrait of a terrible moment in American history and the woman whose contributions helped get the country back on its feet.
Too many books: local history, doughboys, and terrific fiction
When I picked up Massachusetts author Julie Wu’s delightful debut novel, The Third Son, I thought it looked daunting: a protagonist with more than one name, foreign politics, tragedy. But I didn’t set it down again until I’d reached the end. The Third Son is the perfect fusion of great storytelling, evocative settings, interesting characters, and compelling ideas. The book opens in 1943 in Japanese occupied Taiwan during an American bombing raid. We meet Saburo, an eight year old who helps a girl take cover that chaotic afternoon; I loved him immediately. Wu draws readers into Saburo’s world as he grows up, navigates his unhappy family life, finds the girl again, and makes his own way in America. But beneath this book’s lovely surface there is so much more to enjoy. The Third Son is about the power of the human spirit to persevere and transcend hardship. The complexity of the relationships; the political, cultural and historical backdrop of the story; the characters who don’t act in perfectly mapped out ways but rise or fail in the face of challenges as real people do, all make for a rich, highly satisfying read, ripe for discussion.
Cathie Pelletier’s eye for detail enlivens The One-Way Bridge, a novel about fictional Mattagash, Maine and its residents. It’s a warm, humorous read, but subtle, too. Retired teacher Florence Henderson appears late in the book, but I felt like I knew her already because of her vocabulary lesson yard sign. I also loved Billy Thunder, a drug dealer willing to sell his most prized possession to save a dog from being put down. And Harry Plunkett, a Vietnam vet whose brash t-shirts and lifelong feud with local mailman Orville Craft hide a very emotional interior life. What all of her characters share is heart, but Pelletier isn’t shy about exploring their flaws. She portrays the complexity of living in a place where everyone thinks they know everyone else’s business, creating a very empathetic novel without sugar-coating life in rural Maine. You might not want to move there when you’re done reading, but you’ll have new respect for the people who do, like Pelletier herself.
Larry Sullivan’s Educators and Agitators: Selected Works of 19th Century Women Writers from a Small New Hampshire Town is published by the Warner Historical Society. Sullivan researched fifteen women and selected sixty of their works, including poetry, essays , children’s stories, and opinion pieces. His introductions paint a vivid picture of what women in 1800’s New Hampshire cared about and how they lived. They accomplished a great deal besides writing, becoming teachers, “agitators” for a variety of social causes, home economists, journalists, editors, librarians, and community organizers. They traveled around New England, across America and even abroad, wrote about a world that was changing quickly, and contributed to those changes. Vintage photos and Mimi Wiggin’s beautiful artwork enhance the anthology’s peek into the past.
Finally Maine author Richard Rubin’s curiosity, humor, and zest for his subject enlivens The Last of the Doughboys: the Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War. In 2003, after hearing a story about WWII veterans, Rubin wondered whether any WWI doughboys were still alive. He discovered the French government had been searching for every living American WWI veteran to award each the Legion d’Honneur. This “French List” helped Rubin locate and interview several dozen, ages 101-113. Both these carefully recorded conversations and the fascinating details he weaves into their stories — about WWI monuments, battlefield souvenirs, Tin Pan Alley, cultural shifts on the home front and “Over There,” French and British views of America’s WWI contributions, talking with the very old — kept me turning pages. Rubin writes with a journalist’s attentiveness, immersing readers in the lives and experiences of those who “. . . set off for a world war, and came back with a world.”
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