A warrior and her dog

RightSide_FINAL-397x600It would be easy not to like LeAnne Hogan, the principal character in The Right Side (Atria Books, 2017), a marked departure from Spencer Quinn’s popular Chet and Bernie mysteries. The Army sergeant is recovering at Walter Reed Hospital after a disastrous mission in Afghanistan left her without her right eye and with her face and psyche badly scarred.

You want to thank LeAnne, for whom the Army has been her life, for her service. She would lash out at you for that. Various people offer kindness and assistance, and all she can think about is punching them out. Her only connection to a possibly humane world is her hospital roommate, Marci.

That’s when you realize — if, like me, you have no experience with military service, war, or the kind of injury and betrayal LeAnne has experienced — that you have no clue and just need to keep reading. Especially since you already know from the cover and description that there’s a dog in this story.

The dog doesn’t enter the picture until later, after Marci has suddenly died and LeAnne has made a cross-country drive, winding up in Marci’s home town in Washington state. As animals do, the big black canine turns up at a critical moment. Later named Goody, she annoys the hell out of LeAnne, but the two begin to find a way forward.

LeAnne tried running again. The dog helped, partly by pulling her along, but after what must have been a few hundred yards — meaning much farther than her first attempt — LeAnne began to suspect there was more than that to this little resurgence. Something the dog had deep inside was making its way down the leash and sharing itself with her. How was that possible? Did life run on some sort of magic rules that she’d missed the whole time? All LeAnne knew was that strength from the dog had passed into her own legs, and although she didn’t come close to running the way she used to run — and this performance wasn’t even respectable — she was doing better.

Turns out Goody was just getting started, and so was LeAnne.

It’s worth noting that Quinn, in the acknowledgments, thanks two Army veterans for reading and critiquing the manuscript for the novel. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but authenticity never hurt a good story.

 

 

Two books, two women, one famous friendship

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Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok on a 1934 trip to Puerto Rico. (National Archives and Records Administration [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Eleanor-Hick-Cover-Large-1-197x300When the trove of letters between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok came to light two or three decades ago, I wondered why the two hadn’t been more careful to keep their correspondence private. Both women had passed away years before, but still. They lived in a time when secrecy surrounded same-sex relationships, or even the possibility of such, and one of them was married. To the president. That’s some pretty intimate stuff to leave for someone to find and expose, I thought.

51B8ti2v7eL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Now, having read two 2016 books on the subject — Loving Eleanor by Susan Wittig Albert (Persevero Press) and Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair That Shaped a First Lady by Susan Quinn (Penguin Books) — I appreciate that a much bigger story is being told, even now. Perhaps especially now.

Loving Eleanor is fiction, though apparently extensively researched, told in first person from Hickok’s point of view. Eleanor and Hick is a nonfiction account of their lives and relationship. However, both works respectfully and with due diligence tell the story of the reluctant first lady and the pioneering journalist finding their way in 20th century America.

Lorena Hickok was a scrappy, dedicated Associated Press reporter who began covering Eleanor Roosevelt in 1932 as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then governor of New York, campaigned for president. Hick, as she was known, survived childhood poverty and abuse, but managed to get some education and on-the-job training in newspaper work. She was one of the first women to have a byline with her stories. Having written about sports, politics, and the Lindbergh trial, Hick wasn’t too excited about covering campaign-trail teas, but soon discovered a depth, integrity, and vulnerability about the woman she would fondly refer to as ER, or Madam. Hick, completely outside ER’s circle of class and privilege, became her lifeline.

ER, of course, had her own youthful unhappiness to overcome, along with her husband’s affair with Lucy Mercer and the endless interference of her mother-in-law. She had her own circle of friends, a small cottage, and even a furniture company. Being in the White House would not end all of that, but it sure did complicate the life she’d carved out for herself, especially as she and Hick grew closer and one term turned into four.

Hick’s first complication was a conflict of interest. You cannot get that close to a source and keep the required objectivity and the public’s trust. As a seasoned reporter, she knew this. Yet she continued down that slippery slope, even letting ER and FDR advisor Louis Howe review stories before publication, before finally leaving the AP in 1933. Like so many journalists before and after her, she was able to transfer her skills into other lines of work, but she would never return to the news business.

Apart from compromising her journalistic integrity and giving up a job she loved, Hick arranged her life around being available to ER, who fitted Hick in around other friends, children, grandchildren, FDR, and the “endless succession of things” in public life. Though ER trusted and valued Hick greatly, the relationship never quite seemed equal. Given their positions in life, perhaps it was as equal as it could have been. Though Hick accepts this to a degree as the years pass, she spends much of both books waiting and hoping for more.

This sadness permeates their story. Yet there’s no denying that because these two supported, challenged, and inspired each other over so many years, they were able to better themselves and society in ways they couldn’t have otherwise.

After leaving the AP, Hick became a field reporter for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, traveling to areas hit hardest by the Depression and reporting back to boss Harry Hopkins — and ER — on what was really happening in the nation. Having both a reporter’s eye and the ear of the first lady worked well here. She also helped ER with the writing of her books and “My Day” column. ER’s women-only press conferences helped open Washington’s political doors to women journalists, and encouraged them to look to one another for support and accountability.

ER and Hick lived in a time not unlike ours, with polarity and finger-pointing aplenty as the nation recovered from economic hardship and war. In the midst of that, two women from vastly different backgrounds came together, saw what they could do, and did it.

While writing this, I discovered that another novel about Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok, White Houses by Amy Bloom (Penguin Random House, 2018) — also told in first person from Hick’s point of view — has recently been published. Obviously, this is a story that continues to resonate in an era of even less trust in both journalists and political figures.

While these books tell a bittersweet story of a love that didn’t happen the way either party may have wanted, they also give us in the 21st century a glimpse of what is possible when we are brave enough to transcend barriers and work together.

Saying it with flowers

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Does a peony mean “anger,” or does it mean “shame”? (Photo courtesy Foter.com)

It’s one thing for a modern young person to develop a knack for growing things under the direction of a parent, grandparent, teacher, or other important adult. It’s quite another to also become versed in the meanings of specific flowers — rhododendron (“beware”), white poplar (“time”), snapdragon (“presumption”), mistletoe (“I surmount all obstacles”), and more. This is the the language of flowers, which in Victorian times was used to convey a surprising range of sentiments.

1431616332717These are the gifts with which Victoria Jones goes forth in Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s novel, The Language of Flowers (Random House, 2011). On her eighteenth birthday, Victoria ages out of the foster care system and is turned loose in San Francisco to figure out the next step. Isolated and mistrustful, she does little to help herself — but she does plant a garden. She eventually finds work with florist Renata, who is quick to recognize the young woman’s gift for helping people choose flowers for the people and special occasions in their lives based on their meanings.

Her work in San Francisco’s floral world reconnects her with flower farmer/vendor Grant, the nephew of her former foster mother, Elizabeth. Vineyard owner Elizabeth had been Victoria’s mentor in horticulture and the language of flowers. She also wanted to become Victoria’s adoptive mother. This is where the chapters begin to alternate between Victoria’s present-day reality — her work with Renata and her developing relationship with Grant — and the 10-year-old Victoria’s time with Elizabeth. You know something drastic is coming, because Victoria ended up back in foster care; and plenty of changes are unfolding in the here and now that are going to bring those old chickens home to roost.

Such as: the annoying tendency of any language, even the language of flowers, to not remain static and free from contradictions. Victoria visits San Francisco’s Main Library more than once to pore over every volume she can find on flower meanings. She has either been presented with a flower whose meaning she cannot decipher or is looking for a precise botanical response to Grant, who is also flower-fluent. The books are old, crumbling, tucked in between the Victorian poets and gardening books, but it doesn’t take long before she is confused and frustrated anew by multiple, often contradictory definitions of a single flower. She had given her caseworker peony to convey “anger,” but now she finds the flower also means “shame.”

“If peony could be misinterpreted, how many times, to how many people, had I misspoken?” Victoria wonders. Soon, she and Grant begin working on a flower dictionary of their own (it’s included at the back of the book).

Though I was fascinated by the way this young, contemporary character employed the Victorian-era language of flowers to express herself and, ultimately, to help herself and others, some of her behavior is inscrutable, even considering her history in foster care. I also felt disappointed and angry with Elizabeth, who was supposed to be the grown-up. But maybe there’s a reason the foster care system is the setting for stories like this … the actual as well as the fictional.