A woman recently asked me to recommend a good historical novel she could read on her vacation.
"Why does it have to be a novel?" I asked. "Why don't you read Doris Kearns Goodwin's book about the home front and the Roosevelts during World War II, 'No Ordinary Time.' It's extremely well-written, easy and interesting to read, and it has the added advantage of being true."
I'm happy to say this woman took my suggestion. I'm sure she'll be happy that she did, because Goodwin is terrific. I only have one problem with her: she's very slow.
I was reminded of this when she came to Davis in mid-May to give a talk at Freeborn Hall. She met with some reporters before her formal talk and I asked her when we could expect her next book.
"Not for another couple of years," she said with a laugh. She says it took longer to write "No Ordinary Time" than it took the war to be fought.
She has already been working on her new book, about Abraham Lincoln and his relationship with his Cabinet, for the past four years. She guiltily moved all her books about Franklin Delano Roosevelt out of her study to make room for her Lincoln collection.
"Yes, Lincoln is an idealized figure," she said. "But he did have a center to him. He didn't scapegoat others to make up for his mistakes and he could criticize without malice." She suggests that as much as anything else the North won the Civil War because it had greater political leadership than the South and that leadership was not limited to Lincoln.
I look forward to her new book.
In the meantime I contented myself with reading her memoir, "Wait Till Next Year," which is out in paperback (Touchstone, 1998, $13).
Goodwin grew up in the suburbs of New York in the 1950s. Here's a news flash: She had a happy childhood. She did not come from a dysfunctional family. She loved her mother and her father and her two much older sisters. They loved each other and they loved her. How wonderful to read about a happy childhood.
Goodwin's father, a baseball fan, taught her to keep score when she was 6 years old. She listened to a Dodgers baseball game every afternoon with her mother, kept score, and told her father the news when he came home from work (he didn't tell her for a long time that he could read the scores in the evening paper).
In this way, Goodwin developed a wonderful bond with her father and not incidentally learned some early lessons about developing a narrative art.
"At first I would blurt out the final score," said Goodwin. "Later I learned to re-enact the games." Her father must have been a very patient man.
But her childhood came to an end, her mother died, her father sold the family home and remarried. She grew up, went to college, and never got over the betrayal of the Dodgers move to the West Coast. She stopped following baseball completely.
"At Colby College and in my first year at Harvard, where I would teach for almost a decade before leaving to become a full-time historian, I refused to follow baseball, skipping over the sports pages with their accounts of alien teams called the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Francisco Giants. Then, in my second year of studying for my doctorate, a young man invited me to Fenway Park. Allowing my desire for his companionship to overcome my principled reluctance, we ...walked to the park.
"For years I had managed to stay away. I had formed the firmest of resolutions. I had given myself irrefutable reasons, expressed the most passionate of rejections. But I could not get away. Addiction or obsession, love or need, I was born a baseball fan and a baseball fan I was fated to remain."
In 1972 when her father died (the fatal heart attack coming as he watched a Mets game on TV), Goodwin got married and began raising her own family. She had three sons.
"Sometimes sitting in the park with my boys, I imagine myself back at Ebbets Field, a young girl once more in the presence of my father, watching the players of my youth on the grassy fields below... There is magic in these moments," she wrote.
Goodwin, a frequent lecturer on the university circuit, says people always ask her to tell them about historical figures she has written about. Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy, Roosevelt? No. People want to hear stories about Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella and Gil Hodges.
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