by Barbara Cooney
As a child, I spent a great deal of time with my maternal grandparents, both of whom were members of Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation.” Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the salient figure of their early adulthood, a fixture of an unforgettable time.
They mentioned him often, and I grew up familiar with his name, his policies, his legacy. I knew very little about Eleanor, however, apart from the fact that she was somehow related both to her husband and to that other famous Roosevelt, Theodore.
I wanted to learn more about her, but my childhood history classes only mentioned her in passing. Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady to Franklin and niece to Theodore, an addendum to famous men.
Then, in college, I took a class on women’s autobiography. Eleanor figured heavily in one of the course books, which discussed her importance to the Civil Rights movement. As I dug deeper, I found so much more. Everywhere, she was at the forefront of major human rights movements: advocating for immigrants in the early 1900s, for suffrage and other women’s rights in the 1910s and 1920s, for racial equality in the 1930s. She heavily influenced the best parts of her husband’s presidential policies and politics, and his death only propelled her advocacy career into high gear.
Several years later, I was wandering through a bookstore when I spotted Barbara Cooney’s Eleanor on the children’s bargain table. A favorite topic, a favorite illustrator, and a cheap price–it was a no-brainer. When I sat down with my prize that night, I was not disappointed.
Cooney’s book outlines Eleanor’s early life, from her birth in 1884 to her education in Europe at the turn of the century. Born to wealthy but sickly and unstable parents, the future First Lady grew up lonely, self-conscious, and desperate for friendship.
She also grew up in a family with a strong awareness of and compassion for the plight of New York’s immigrant underclass; her father, uncles, and aunts all took her along to volunteer in lodging houses, homeless missions, and the notorious Hell’s Kitchen.
After enrolling at England’s Allenswood School in 1899, Eleanor finally found her place. Her early education had prepared her well for academic success, and her kind disposition earned her a number of friends. The school’s insightful headmistress “inspired her to think for herself, to ask questions, to be passionately committed to life and the lives of others.”
The book ends with Eleanor’s return to the U. S. at age 18, taking the first step on the road to becoming one of the 20th century’s most influential and respected people.
Cooney’s book is a refreshingly honest treatment of Eleanor’s life, family, and state of mind in these early years. In language appropriate for young children, she outlines Eleanor’s fears and self-doubts, her father’s erratic behavior, her yearning for love and attention. When it would be easy to focus on the heroic, Cooney focuses on the real.
And her illustrations only add to the realism. They move from cool- to warm-toned as the book progresses, mimicking Eleanor’s transition from the fears and emotional isolation of early childhood to the joy and adventure of her teen years abroad. The settings are richly atmospheric, and each character’s face and carriage clearly communicate his or her state of mind.
It shocked me to realize that the ebullient woman I’ve seen in so many historic photos spent her early years feeling isolated, depressed, and fearful. For today’s girls, it can only be encouraging to learn that one of history’s bravest and most progressive individuals fought–and won–her own struggle with friendlessness, unattractiveness, and grief.
After I had finished reading Eleanor, this woman was even more of a hero to me than before.
What are your thoughts on Eleanor Roosevelt? Are there other women from the public arena, living or dead, who’ve inspired you?