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Review: ‘The Firebrand and the First Lady’ By Patricia Bell-Scott

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The friendship between Pauli Murray and Eleanor Roosevelt.
By Terri Schlichenmeyer

You know your own mind. After thinking things through, you have your opinions, and while you’re willing to listen to what others say, you’re also willing to defend what you believe in. And, as in the new book The Firebrand and the First Lady by Patricia Bell-Scott, your friends don’t necessarily have to agree with you.

The Firebrand and the First Lady by Patricia Bell-Scott 2016, Alfred A. Knopf (knopfdoubleday.com) 480 pages • $30/$39 Canada
The Firebrand and the First Lady by Patricia Bell-Scott | 2016, Alfred A. Knopf (knopfdoubleday.com) | 480 pages • $30/$39 Canada

Eleanor Roosevelt’s Camp Tera, nestled near New York’s Hudson River, was initially meant to be a temporary, leg-up place for Depression-era women who were destitute and totally without resources. Though she was young, educated, and married, Pauli Murray was there because of ill health.

Recovery time aside, Murray’s tenure at Camp Tera was beneficial: a friend had told her that Roosevelt answered all correspondence, and Murray took that to heart. In 1938, a few years after she was kicked out of Camp Tera for “disrespecting the first lady,” she wrote a protest letter to Roosevelt, asking her to intercede and persuade FDR to change his stance on anti-lynching laws. Activism was Murray’s passion, and the answer she got wasn’t what she’d wanted, but it did, as promised, come from Roosevelt.

Murray was born in 1910, the feisty granddaughter of a mulatto slave whose stories of injustice she grew up hearing. Murray lost her mother when she was just three; a few years later, her father was institutionalized, then murdered, and her brother was lobotomized. She also had health problems and was often severely underweight; during one of her hospitalizations, she finally admitted that she was attracted to women, which was then considered to be a mental-health issue.

It took a while for Murray to tell Roosevelt all that. Before she did, and because of that first protest note, the two corresponded for years in letters that offered guidance, outrage, and rebuttal. The women didn’t always agree, but they always seemed to attempt to understand one another’s take on issues. Murray supported Roosevelt in her widowhood. Roosevelt encouraged Murray in her activism. It was a support that Murray imagined she felt long after Mrs. Roosevelt’s death.

I would not, under the broadest of terms, call The Firebrand and the First Lady a pleasure read.

Author Patricia Bell-Scott
Author Patricia Bell-Scott

That’s not to say that this book isn’t a pleasure—it’s just not something you’d pick up to relax with. Author Patricia Bell-Scott goes deep into the politics and work of both Roosevelt and Murray (more the latter than the former), so her story is informative but far from lively. Roosevelt left her mark on social issues in many ways, and that story has largely been hidden for decades. Adding more details of Murray’s personal life might’ve helped; that’s what I was hungriest for, but didn’t get enough of.

I think this is an important work of history and definitely worth reading, but you’ll want to be in the mood for it, particularly if you usually like lots of energy in your stories. If you’re a scholar or historian reading The Firebrand and the First Lady, though, the slow pace is something you probably won’t mind.

Terri Schlichenmeyer has been reading since she was three years old, and she lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.

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Terri Schlichenmeyer

Terry Schlichenmeyer is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.
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