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Thursday, September 12, 2013

“The Roosevelts: An American Saga”, by Peter Collier and David Horowitz


542 pages, Simon & Schuster, ISBN-13: 978-0671652258

Peter Collier’s and David Horowitz’s The Roosevelts: An American Saga is breathtaking in scope, covering not only presidents Theodore and Franklin, but giving detailed biographies of their forebears and children. The lively prose describes the times and society in which the competing branches of the Roosevelt family existed, with the balance of power moving from Oyster Bay to Hyde Park as Great War shifts to Depression, sand does yeoman’s work describing the great animosity that developed between the two branches of the family. Much of what I had read previously about the two Roosevelts focused on their times as president. This book is all about their families; their home lives, the children and their relationships with their parents and each other.

The contrast between the two families is a major theme of the book, and it gave me a greater respect for the first President Roosevelt: the way he and Edith raised their children and the lasting impact of their love and guidance. But it made me feel sorry for Franklin and Eleanor, and more so for their children. Even though the families are almost contemporaries (just one generation apart, Theodore’s children and Franklin and Eleanor are the same generation), Franklin's family seemed so much more “modern”, illustrating all the problems we think about in families today – divorce, absentee parenting, conflict between parents and between siblings. I know these problems are not new (and not completely absent from Theodore's descendants either), but the difference between the two families seems to reflect the great change in society following the First World War on which so many writers of the time comment.

Although most readers (and most historians) are primarily interested in the two presidents (and Eleanor), the lives of their children also tell important stories of America and the world during the two World Wars and after. Several of the children and grandchildren achieved significant accomplishments in their own right and deserve recognition and remembrance, although none reached the height of their famous fathers. Their lives illustrate the struggles of the children of famous lineage. How can they carry on the family name yet carve out some identity of their own? Who will be the standard bearer for the next generation? Are they trying to live up to their famous name or are they trying to trade off of it? It is in part around these questions that the feud between the Oyster Bay Roosevelts (Theodore's descendants) and the Hyde Park Roosevelts (Franklin and Eleanor) erupts into open conflict, waged in both political and personal arenas.

For many people like me who may feel familiar with the two Presidents but are fuzzy on how they were connected, this book will fill in the gaps. But more than that, it tells a fascinating American story through two branches of one family, leaders of their nation through war and peace but often at war with each other as well.

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