In describing Theodore Roosevelt’s first picture with his future wife, Alice Hathaway Lee, biographer Edmund Morris writes in the award-winning first volume of his trilogy on the 26th U.S. President, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (1979):
Alice, seated lower, leans toward him, almost touching his right thigh. Her skirts droop sexily over his shoe.
Nothing in the surviving picture seems particularly “sexy” by today’s standards (see image above), but I can imagine that the contact between the outermost layer of Lee’s skirt and Roosevelt’s shoe might have been suggestive for 1878. I’m particularly amused by the fact that the picture is not of two people, but of three, the chaperone being Rose Saltonstall, whom historian Stacy A. Cordery calls “the ubiquitous Rose” in Alice: Alice Roosevelt Longworth, from White House Princess to Washington Power Broker (2008)
I’m in the middle of both Morris’ and Cordery’s Roosevelt books right now.
I fell into this Roosevelt “rabbit hole” — where one book leads to another — when I read Rebecca Behrens’ When Audrey Met Alice, a middle grade novel published last month. It features a thirteen-year-old girl named Audrey, whose mother is President of the United States (three cheers for a female president!). Audrey struggles with the same challenges many thirteen-year-olds face, from uncomfortable social situations to seemingly unrequited crushes, with the added difficulty of dealing with it all under the watch of the public and the secret service. An only child, Audrey finds a kindred spirit in the headstrong Alice Roosevelt, a former “first daughter,” when she stumbles upon Alice’s old diary in the White House.
Audrey manages to keep this discovery secret, despite living in a “fishbowl,” having concluded that if she “showed [the diary] to [her] parents, they’d probably find a way to ruin it too.” She blames her parents for upending her comfortable life in Minnesota by moving into the White House. The choice was theirs, not hers. Alice’s experience with a similar transition shows Audrey just how much the two “first daughters” have in common despite a century of time between them. Alice’s stories encourage Audrey to push her boundaries, initially resulting in a series of missteps that ultimately teach Audrey how to make the best of her situation.
While the novel’s 9 to 12-year-old reading level is a little advanced for my 6-year-old early readers, I’m always on the lookout for novels to add to their library in the future. There are some examples of Audrey’s rule-breaking that might concern some parents, such as when Audrey sneaks onto the roof with a pack of cigarettes or when she sneaks a boy into the White House, but Behrens doesn’t glorify these behaviors. Nor will discouraging a child from reading this book prevent that child from engaging in similar behaviors. In my opinion, it’s better to use Audrey’s behavior as a conversation-starter with my kids than it is to pretend that teenagers are nothing but angels 100% of the time.
Overall, what I like most about this novel is that it introduces young readers to an interesting female historical figure from a time period when women couldn’t even vote. After reading this novel, I decided to learn more about Alice Roosevelt by picking up Cordery’s Alice, which I have enjoyed so far but have decided to put on hold until I finish Morris’ biography of Theodore. I think I will appreciate Alice even more after I better acquaint myself with her family.
*Top Image: A portion of the 1878 picture that appears in Morris’ The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, originally from the Alice Sturm Collection.