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Bookworm: Many layers of surprise inside ‘Eleanor’

Be prepared to be unsatisfyingly satisfied with ‘American Baby’

Terri Schlichenmeyer
Columnist

“Eleanor”

  • By David Michaelis
  • c. 2020, Simon & Schuster
  • $35, $47.00 Canada; 698 pages

Life, as they say, is an open book. When you're born, someone else starts writing it for you, but it doesn't take long for you to be your own author. Through the years, you'll scribble ideas, compose thoughtfully, add chapters, and crumple pages. Your life's book might be a series of quick notes, long essays, one-liners or, as in “Eleanor” by David Michaelis, you could build an epic story.

“Eleanor” author David Michaelis.

In today's world, we might call Eleanor Roosevelt's mother abusive: Anna Hall Roosevelt never had a kind word to say to her daughter, often mockingly calling little Eleanor “Granny.” It's true that Eleanor wasn't lithe and beautiful like her mother; she was awkward and stern, a Daddy's girl for an often-absent, alcoholic father.

Orphaned by the time she was 12, Eleanor had been long-told that she was homely and plain, but school chums knew her as a caring girl with a sharp mind. That intelligence later caught the eye of the dashing Franklin Roosevelt, a somewhat-distant cousin who courted her with the nose-holding approval of his mother.

It was a good match, but only for a short while: too quickly, it was apparent that Eleanor and Franklin were colossally mismatched. She needed him to need her, but he couldn't – not in the way she wanted, so she found love in the arms of another man and a woman. Her compassion for others, a rather acquired sense, helped buoy his ambition; his ambition gave her a reason to dig in and reach out to their fellow Americans in need. Despite that it invited controversy from Washington insiders, Roosevelt changed the office of the First Lady by ignoring what past First Ladies had done, once they reached the White House and beyond ...

“Eleanor” by David Michaelis.

Readers who are not deep historians are in for many layers of surprise inside “Eleanor,” the first being Roosevelt's early life, and the racism she exhibited as a young woman. Famously, she was a champion of African Americans during the years of her husband's time as President and beyond, and she strove for equality, but author David Michaelis shows a sort of axis of attitude that the former First Lady experienced.

His portrayal is balanced with compassion: Michaelis lets us see a transformation in the pages of this book and it's fascinating to watch. Rather than romanticize Roosevelt, Michaelis paints her as someone with flaws that she may not've overtly acknowledged but that she learned to work around. This becomes abundantly clear in tales of the warmth Roosevelt craved but was denied by her husband and the relationships she enjoyed in open secret, including a passionate love she shared with reporter Lorena Hickock and a much-debated, possible affair with State Trooper Earl Miller. Such tales are told matter-of-factly and without salaciousness, though you may feel a whoop of delight at a supposedly-staid Depression-era White House that really was a den of dalliance.

Don't let its heft frighten you away: “Eleanor” may be wide but so's its story. Indeed, you'll be carried away when you open this book.

“American Baby: A Mother, a Child, and the Shadow History of Adoption”

  • By Gabrielle Glaser
  • c. 2021, Viking
  • $28, higher in Canada; 352 pages

You can hardly believe someone would let that go.

But here it is, so take it. You've been hoping for this thing for most of your life and now's the time. Your deepest wish, your biggest want, it's all yours. Just know that, as in the new book “American Baby” by Gabrielle Glaser, some things are never really relinquished.

David Rosenberg was dying.

“American Baby: A Mother, a Child, and the Shadow History of Adoption” author Gabrielle Glaser.

He'd always been a big man, physically and personality-wise, beloved by everyone, and cherished by his family – but that family was somewhat of a question mark, as he told Glaser early in their friendship. Rosenberg was adopted as a baby, and he sometimes wondered if the diseases that were killing him were hereditary.

A gift of a DNA-test kit gave him the beginning of an answer and opened a door: he found his birth mother, but he was too ill to fly to her. He begged Glaser to meet her.

In the years after World War II, when good girls didn't “fool around,” Margaret Erle and George Katz got carried away once, and she denied the subsequent pregnancy until she couldn't. She and George were too young to marry but they were in love and hopeful that things would work out; alas, Margaret's mother had other ideas. She insisted that Margaret give birth in a maternity home, relinquish her baby, and then forget the whole situation ever happened.

But how could Margaret forget? She sang German lullabies to her unborn child, dreaming of the family she and George would have. Instead of a happy future, though, Margaret was pressured to sign away the rights to her child because, as Glaser learned, adoption was big business and Margaret was holding things up. Under duress, frightened, she signed, and then she wondered for the rest of her life if her son was one of the dark-eyed boys she occasionally spotted, never knowing that for a while, the child she gave up lived just ten blocks from her home ...

“American Baby: A Mother, a Child, and the Shadow History of Adoption” by Gabrielle Glaser.

The DNA test-kit you got for a gift last month was fun. It told you all kinds of interesting things about yourself that you never knew – and that goes double for users who are adoptees and for their newfound siblings. Flush with new information, read “American Baby” for the rest of one story.

First, though, know that this tale tugs at the heartstrings but at the same time, it kicks the rest of your ticker into the next county. Author Gabrielle Glaser writes with barely-concealed outrage of a sad, multi-layer love story that goes unrequited for decades, filled with near-misses, packed with lies and secrets that can read like a whodunit set in a maternity home – and that latter? It's a relic that readers will, ultimately and at the end of this story, be glad is mostly gone.

Read this book, absolutely, but be prepared to be unsatisfyingly satisfied in a breathless sort of way, especially if you're a parent or adoptee. Bring tissues and know that once you start “American Baby,” you'll never want to let it go.

More

For more on the subject of mothers and children, look for “Loved and Wanted: A Memoir of Choice, Children, and Womanhood” by Christa Perravani. It's the story of healthcare, the difficulty of finding resources in some places in our country, beloved children, and a pregnancy that was unplanned.

More:Bookworm: America’s crafty history

And:Bookworm: Will the few well-told stories save ‘Nazi Wives?’

Also:Bookworm: Best books of 2020

The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.