Review: No Ordinary Time

No Ordinary Time
No Ordinary Time
Doris Kearns Goodwin
Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, NY 1994

Review Copyright © 1998 Garret Wilson — July 2, 1998, 5:30pm

You’ve probably heard the story before: In the early 1940's, the German’s invade almost everyone, the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, America gets into what is by then World War II, and guided by Franklin Roosevelt, America helps win the war, although not before FDR dies. That’s the short of it. But what makes No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin one of the books that you should read is that it is historically comprehensive while entertaining.

Because of two of those points (namely, you know the plot already and the book is so comprehensive), I’ll cover more the "feel" of the book, and also pick out some interesting points along the way. Anything close to a traditional book review would in this case be unsuitable — No Ordinary Time calls for no ordinary report.

First, the comprehensiveness: as others have remarked, one feels as if one is actually living in the White House along with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, Missy, Fala (Roosevelt’s dog), and all the other interesting characters who come along, including Winston Churchill and various other dignitaries. From the book’s opening pages describing Roosevelt’s methods for falling asleep, it’s almost as if you’re there. You share the secret letters between lovers, to likes and dislikes between characters, the loves and hatreds of everyone around you.

What makes this trip back in time so amazing is that it’s true, down to the last detail. As Goodwin explains, "Details such as these can only emerge from research. To remedy gaps in knowledge by fabricating details, even those which may seem inconsequential, is to shift from nonfiction to fiction and is a betrayal of the historian’s trust" (638). And that is amazing: to find out that things that one would consider the imagination of the author, such as the sweat on someone’s face or the quivering of their hands, are in fact actual occurrences gleaned from undoubtedly many hours of research. Very many hours.

Doris Goodwin has put what would appear to be a lifetime of effort into this painstaking research, as evidenced by the long list of primary sources, including interviews, the White House Usher Diaries, and letters and publications of many of the main characters. But don’t forget that this is a good read (although quite a long one — don’t expect to finish it in a day, or probably not even a week), an exciting story that Goodwin has sewn together from the thousands of pieces of patchwork she has collected.

It’s a wonderful surprise to find out that the little things are all true. What did she add, one wonders? A comma? An article? Yet it all flows together as if it were a novel written to describe something unbelievable, because in many places the events that are told are just that: unbelievable.

Did you know that we had such strict immigration laws at the outset of the war that many Jews could not enter the country at a time when Hitler was allowing them to leave? Can you believe that one man did not allow American bombers to bomb concentration camps, which might have saved some Jews from death, because he claimed they were beyond the reach of the airplanes? Remarking about certain aerial reconnaissance photos taken on several flights, one person mused, "With a magnifying glass we could actually read the names and numbers of the Hungarian Jews standing in line waiting to be gassed. Yet McCloy [in the War Department] claimed the target was too far away" (516).

Who can believe that, before the war, treatment of blacks was so severe? Only five African Americans officers in the military in 1940 (626)? How could Eleanor Roosevelt be criticized by a US Representative for attending the first non-Jim Crow servicement’s canteen in Washington, D.C. (503)? Was it only a little over 50 years ago that people would say such terrible things about blacks and whites actually serving together in the military, going to school together, or even working together?

Goodwin keeps the reader informed about the war as a whole, but concentrates on the American home front. Everything is examined, and Goodwin is so scrutinizing, for example, that we find out even the mistakes that Eleanor makes in her autobiography, making us realize that the human memory doesn’t always get the facts straight (393).

Have you seen the movie "Casablanca?" I have, now. If you haven’t seen it, did you know that it's in Africa? During World War II? Watching it while in the midst of No Ordinary Time really puts it in context. (Romance? Was there a romance in the movie?) Little tidbits from World War II suddenly spring up all over the place. In my French class, the name, "Marrakesh" was in a worksheet, and few people had heard of the place. Imagine my surprise when I came upon the same location that night while reading No Ordinary Time (408)!

This book examines in depth the relationship between Franklin and Eleanor to such detail, one wonders if we know more about them than they did themselves. That’s surely not true, of course, but, here again, the coverage is as comprehensive as the relationship was untraditional. For two people that must have loved each other but in so many ways were not right for each other, their unique complementary relationship did its part to help guide the country through one of its most trying times. Whatever positive aspects this strange partnership had, one feels a bit of a sorrow when Roosevelt visits Eleanor’s apartment (which she had at the time owned for more than two years) for the first time and sees the entrances arranged for his handicap and the two connected rooms ready for him in the event that he should ever visit (550).

No Ordinary Time is dense and comprehensive, yet extremely enjoyable. The enjoyment will last for some while, since it will take you some time to finish the book. You’ll therefore have to commit some time to the task of reading it. You’ll become intimately knowledgeable of a certain man and his family that in many ways brought about modern America and guided the formation of the modern world, making the time you spend with this book a commitment you should make as soon as possible.