No Ordinary Time

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

NO ORDINARY TIME is a well-timed book, published as it is on the fiftieth anniversary of the closing stages of World War II. It also is competently researched and written. It adds little to knowledge or understanding of the war itself, however, and is too long and sometimes tiresome.

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were extraordinary people in positions of extraordinary influence in American society at an extraordinary time. The trouble with the book under review is that it covers ground already covered by any number of other books. Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of THE FITZGERALDS AND THE KENNEDYS (1987) and LYNDON JOHNSON AND THE AMERICAN DREAM (1977), is pleased with her own scholarly efforts, as no doubt she has cause to be. “This book relies predominantly upon a multitude of primary materials,” she states in her “Note on Sources.” So it evidently does. According to Goodwin, the White House Usher Diaries were “an especially invaluable guide at the start of the project. These day-by-day, even minute-by- minute chronologies reveal when the president and the first lady awakened, who joined them for meals and meetings, how much time was spent with each visitor.” The details of domestic life at the White House will fascinate some readers while seeming ordinary and tedious to others.

Goodwin’s device of alternating between narration of events on the home front and abroad and details of the First Family’s domestic concerns and comings and goings might seem inspired, but in the execution it putters along. There are better books to begin with to gain an understanding of the political and social context of World War II. Nevertheless, Goodwin does present an illuminating portrait of her chosen subjects.

Sources for Further Study

American Heritage. XLV, October, 1994, p. 14.

Booklist. XC, August, 1994, p. 1987.

Chicago Tribune. October 2, 1994, XIV, p. 1.

Library Journal. CXIX, September 15, 1994, p. 79.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 9, 1994, p. 2.

The New Republic. CCXI, October 10, 1994, p. 42.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, September 11, 1994, p. 9.

Newsweek. CXXIV, October 3, 1994, p. 61.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, August 1, 1994, p. 65.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIV, September 18, 1994, p. 1.

No Ordinary Time

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

No Ordinary Time is not an easy book to recommend. The best that can be said of it is that it revisits adequately a crucial moment in U.S. history. It will be pleasurable reading for people who enjoy being told the domestic details of the lives of great and famous people. Yet an uncountable number of other books have been written about World War II and its immense ramifications in space and time, many of which are far more valuable than this one to readers genuinely interested in understanding what it all was all about.

Doris Kearns Goodwin is the author of two other similar books, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys (1987) and Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream (1976). No Ordinary Time is permeated, indeed evidently motivated, by a largely unexamined fawning admiration for wealth and power for their own sakes. Franklin Roosevelt was one of the most important of U.S. presidents, to be sure, and Eleanor was an extraordinary figure in her own right. It seems evident that both have been written about quite often enough already. The year 1994 was full of events ominous in their implications for the continuing absence of global war: the U.S. occupation of Haiti; a seemingly definitive abdication by the international community of any responsibil-ity for any just and/or lasting end to the horrifically bloody war in Bosnia; nuclear brinkmanship on the Korean peninsula; the Russian invasion of Chechnya; at least half a million people murdered in Rwanda. With a modicum of foresight, a major publisher might have seized the moment to publish a more trenchant book on U.S. involvement in World War II, explicitly or otherwise drawing thought-provoking parallels to the world situation half a century later.

No Ordinary Time narrates U.S. responses to and involvement in the war, from May 10, 1940, the day Nazi Germany invaded Holland, Luxembourg, Belgium, and France, until Franklin Roosevelt’s death and the end of the war in 1945. A brief afterword sums up the postwar lives of the principal personages. It follows the private comings and goings of the Roosevelts and their retainers and friends in sometimes interesting, often tedious, detail. The author sums up her purpose in her preface. “Most studies of the home front have been arranged topically—production, civil rights, rationing, women, Japanese Americans, etc.,” she writes. “But a president does not deal with issues topically. He deals with events and problems as they arise. By following the sequence of events ourselves, it is easier to see the connection between the home front and the war, between the level of production at a particular time and the decisions about where and when to fight, between the private qualities of leadership and the public acts.”

Perhaps so. Although the ambition is admirable, a much more acute and lastingly valuable homefront narrative was written during the war itself by George Orwell. Orwell admittedly was living and writing on the British homefront, not the American; but not only was the British homefront much closer to the action than its American counterpart and much more immediately affected by the war from day to day (especially during the London blitz of 1940), but Orwell was regularly in touch with associates in the United States. His “London Letters” to Partisan Review during the war, his diary entries, his “As I Please” column, and his many letters and reviews can be found in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell (four volumes; published 1968). To put it delicately, Doris Kearns Goodwin is no George Orwell. She or someone could have written a book that gave a palpable sense of the problems and worries of American people “on the ground” during the war. It is a shame that she concentrates unduly on the Roosevelts and their retinue.

More valuable sources on the American home front do exist. One such is American Odyssey (1974), Robert Conot’s extraordinary history of Detroit, the city whose industrial might earned it the moniker “The Arsenal of Democracy.” In 1943, writes Conot, “The city was a beaker of nitroglycerin with the ever-present potential for explosion. . . . In August, 1942, Life magazine found that ‘Detroit Is Dynamite,’ and that it ‘can either blow up Hitler or it can blow up the U.S.’ . . . The competition for overcrowded public facilities caused repeated flareups.” “The fight over housing was very, very serious,” agrees Frank Rashid of Marygrove College, a Detroit resident in the 1990’s. “It was brought on completely by the auto industry, which drew up whole bunches of people for which the city was not prepared. We ended up with the 1943 race riot as a result.” Contrast the bland, sanguine narration of Goodwin: “Observers accustomed to the ‘swing-and-duck rivalry’ that had existed in Detroit before Pearl Harbor were astonished to note that...

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