I don’t often read historical fiction. I would rather know the truth about an event that happened or be lost in a world that never existed. But I loved Amy Bloom’s “White Houses,” which follows the romance between first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and reporter Lorena Hickok (whose friends call her “Hick”).
Bloom’s author’s note, stated at the end of the novel, says: “To the best of my ability, I have worked from the particulars and facts of geography, chronology, customs, and books by actual historians. But this is a work of fiction, from beginning to end.”
This is beautiful in and of itself. Readers trust that many of the facts outside the romance in this novel are true which makes the novel so much more intriguing. These two characters are real women who were already some of the more interesting people in American history. Adding in this new piece of a part-fictional, part-true romance is what gives this book its intrigue. I was constantly looking up events and facts that are stated in the novel, and I wasn’t disappointed to find that the author stayed true to the history books for much of it.
The relationship between Eleanor and Hick was an open secret in the White House, which gives the book its historical grounding. Bloom is able to craft beautiful prose, complex characters, deep and emotionally profound relationships while also staying true to the characters as the public knows them. Eleanor is strict with herself and those around her and always expects the best out of people in the most kind hearted way possible.
But what makes this book come alive is the loveable voice of Hickok, the narrator. Hickok, who grew up in poverty, sees the world in a drastically different view than her lover. Hickok is frank in her worldview. Eleanor often looks at the world through rose-colored glasses. As a reader, this makes it hard to relate to Eleanor’s character, and even FDR shares that sentiment. The novel makes it clear that their relationship was of mutual respect and not of love. “Eleanor was a Great Lady, and what man in Christ’s name wanted to be married to that?” Hickok says in the book.
Along with her no-nonsense, frank and insightful commentary, Hick wins over hearts because we are able to watch her grow through her journey from rags to the White House. She remains herself, she remains Hick through her first job as a hired girl to her job as a reporter. Bloom has won over her readers with Hick’s character development, and this is what has made this book go from average to something that readers will remember for a long time. Plot lines and events make up a story, but characters give it life.