Sunday, July 3, 2016

Telling True Stories

I never had any ambition to write nonfiction. I'm too much of a control freak. In addition, I love the freedom of science fiction and fantasy to write my own rules, and create my own cultures.

Nevertheless, I admire good story telling, and when the story is 100% true, it's wonderful to see someone tell it well. I recently watched the Ken Burns PBS documentary series on the Roosevelts (Teddy, Franklin, and Elinor). The full title is The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, and it is about their personal, intimate lives. This series is fabulous for so many reasons! And it's good story telling.

The series opens with Teddy, as he came first chronologically. I really hope this series gets shown in classroom across America. For one thing, Teddy illustrates how new our country is. He was a 20th century president, yet he was born during our Civil War, and watched Lincoln's funeral cortege as a small boy, from a window of his grandfather's house.

He was also an amazing person. He was born into wealth, but also into terrible health. He had asthma back when there were not good treatments for asthma. He was considered very sickly. He also suffered from time to time from depression. But he made himself into a strong, active person by the strength of his will and from determination (and, of course, he wasn't hampered in this by working for a living).

Franklin was a sixth cousin. Also well-to-do, he was the only child of his mother, who was much younger than his father. He had an older half-brother by his father's first wife, but does not seem to have seen him much.
A young FDR

One thing I never knew is that FDR chose his eyeglasses to match the kind worn by his cousin Teddy. I had always assumed that they were just a common thing back then, but he admired his cousin a lot.

Also, while Teddy was a Republican, he was a progressive Republican (what a concept, these days!) , and his cousins all supported him even though Franklin's family were Democrats.

Elinor was actually named Anna Elinor. Her father Elliott was Teddy's brother. He was a doting parent, but also an alcoholic with mental health issues. Both her parents died when she was a child, first her mother and two years later her father. Her mother was a beautiful woman, but Elinor herself was always considered plain. She had rather a lonely childhood, and in many ways, an unhappy marriage. She and Franklin had six children, all of whom survived to adulthood, and outlived their mother.

Over her long life, she became known as a tireless worker for good causes. She supported her husband's career even through he wasn't faithful to her, and she never spoke publicly about her pain.

Elinor as First
 Lady of NY State

The series makes clear that what ties all three of these people together is not just their name, but a sense of duty. They lived and breathed duty. They lived well documented lives, writing tons of letters and giving speeches that make their beliefs plain. Teddy may have loved the limelight, but he was always motivated by what he saw as his country's good. Franklin was a better president than husband (doubtless true of many, many presidents), and Elinor herself might have been more comfortable as a First Lady than as Franklin's wife, but both of them knew they could do more good together than apart.

If you haven't seen this series, then you might want to check it out. Ken Burns is a master at story telling. And telling you about his work gives me a chance to use one of my favorite little jokes. Elinor was clearly a feminist. After all, she kept her name after she got married. :)

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