Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “No Ordinary Time: Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II” was published in 1994 and won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1995. Goodwin is an author and presidential historian who has written about Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, LBJ, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.
This 636 page book is meticulously researched, fact-filled and essentially a hybrid literary construct: it is part history text and part dual-biography (of FDR and his wife Eleanor). Goodwin’s narrative is sometimes gossipy but more often is sober and serious. However, this book is not comprehensive in scope – it is focused on the last five years of the Roosevelt presidency (1940 through 1945).
With few exceptions “No Ordinary Time” proceeds chronologically. But Goodwin occasionally breaks the timeline to inject historical context which would otherwise fall outside the book’s scope (such as the Roosevelts’ early upbringings, FDR’s battle with polio and the marital rift created by Franklin’s affair with Lucy Mercer).
As its title suggests, Goodwin’s book is far more focused on the “home front” than with global affairs. Readers seeking a deep appreciation for the ebb and flow of World War II will be disappointed. Instead, Goodwin conveys history almost exclusively from the perspective of the First Couple and their family, friends and colleagues who lived in the White House during these weighty years.
On balance, Eleanor and Franklin would probably appreciate Goodwin’s portrayals of their respective characters and legacies. FDR is depicted as an extraordinarily intuitive and consequential politician…but a flawed husband and friend. Eleanor often lacks self-confidence and a sense of self-worth but possesses remarkable devotion to a wide range of important progressive causes. As its highest calling, Goodwin’s book seems designed to demonstrate both the complexity and the value inherent in their unique partnership.
But Goodwin’s perspective – viewed through the lens of this compelling couple – comes at the expense of a deeper examination of Franklin’s political philosophies and legislative priorities, a broader understanding of the war itself and a more vibrant description of the president’s most important political relationships (such as his fascinating relationship with Winston Churchill).
By virtue of the book’s relatively narrow chronological focus the reader misses some of the fundamentals – and many of the nuances – of FDR’s early life up through his New Deal agenda. In addition, the book’s structure and style and flow creates the frequent impression of the reader being rigidly walked through the First Couple’s daily schedules without concern for the relative importance of individual moments.
Overall, though, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “No Ordinary Time” is a compelling review of one of the most compelling and important First Couples in our nation’s history. It is not a consistently easy, colorful or comprehensive treatment of FDR’s life. But most fans of Franklin or Eleanor Roosevelt will find this book little short of outstanding.
Overall rating: 4¼ stars