Miller and McGinnis provide a fascinating story and a wonderfully versatile resource with their recent work, A Volume of Friendship: The Letters of Eleanor Roosevelt and Isabella Greenway, 1904-1953. In this book, built around the two women’s forty-nine year correspondence, the editors illuminate a tender relationship that traversed American history from the Progressive era through World War II.
Throughout the book, Eleanor and Isabella’s letters reveal the ever-present specter of sickness and death in the first half of the twentieth century. Tuberculosis, scarlet fever, pneumonia, polio, and chicken pox were among the illnesses each woman nursed family members through. In most cases, the patients survived, but some did not. Nevertheless, no one seemed to escape a long bout with a potentially life-threatening sickness.
Marriage found Isabella making the best of a demanding outdoor life and home schooling her two children, while Eleanor attempted to balance the social demands of being a politician’s wife with caring for her growing family. The contrast of life in the West versus life in the East is one of the most compelling aspects of the book. Although both women were arguably “privileged,” their lives were never without daunting complications. Mingled with their difficulties are intriguing glimpses into Isabella’s tent life in New Mexico, the Mexican Revolution and the development of Progressive politics in the east and west.
Both women continued to nurture their friendship through letters as their children grew older.
Eleanor and Isabella both performed volunteer work during World War I and moved on to political activism in the post-war years. Arizona voters elected Isabella as their U.S. Representative in 1933, when Eleanor took up her post as First Lady. Despite their greater public responsibilities and Isabella’s decision not to support Franklin’s run for a third term their relationship continued her words are as relevant today, if not more so, than when they were written in 1946.
Volumes of Friendship will captivate a variety of readers. Miller and McGinnis have written excellent “bridge narratives” to fill in the history and significance of events and people mentioned in the letters. Therefore, they provide a provocative story for followers of Roosevelt-era history. Additionally, advanced high school students and college students will gain fresh perspectives on twentieth century women’s lives, family, illness, war, and politics from the letters. The editors include meticulous citations, which will not only assist the reader but might launch the entrepreneurial researcher on an investigation of his or her own. This book will be welcome addition to women’s history and the history of the Roosevelt era.
—Sally Dwyer-McNulty, History Department, Marist College