Sunday, July 5, 2009

Biographies are Beautiful

There was a period in my youth when I read every biography I could get my hands on. There is something fascinating about the lives of famous people. It is somehow gratifying to learn that the lives of famous people are not without the same kinds of problems we all face and often are much more stressful than "regular folks" would ever want to handle.

Like all biographies written for young readers, the biographies I read left out lots of gossip and hardship and made their subjects sound like paragons of virtue and intelligence. Biographies for adults tend follow the opposite route, revealing every wart and flaw. It is interesting to compare the two options, which I have recently done with biographies of Alice Roosevelt Longworth.

What to Do about Alice? : How Alice Roosevelt Broke the Rules, Charmed the World, and Drove her Father Teddy Crazy by Barbara Kerley is a picture book style biography for readers in grades two to five. It is full of the wild and crazy antics of young Alice when she and her brothers and one sister lived in the White House. It gives one the feeling that life was carefree and fun and that Alice enjoyed stirring things up when her step-mother would have preferred a little more decorum. I am convinced that this was indeed the case most of the time. The story does leave out the other problems that plagued a little girl whose mother died two days after she was born and whose father was busy running the country, making a name for himself, and, yes, missing his first wife.

Alice: Alice Roosevelt Longworth, from White House to Princess to Washington Power Broker by Stacy A. Cordery is nearly five hundred pages of well-researched insight into Alice Roosevelt's long life. The tone of this book is much heavier than would ever be appropriate for a book for young readers. This Alice did have fun adventures in the White House but she also felt a little out of the group with her half-siblings, her strict step-mother, and her somewhat aloof father. She found her way by making waves, covering her shyness with bravado. It is clear from this book--and from the young reader biography--that Alice Lee Roosevelt Longworth was an intelligent woman who had strong ideas about right and wrong and what would keep people paying attention to her.

Reading biographies is not always as easy as reading a novel but it is generally well worth the extra effort. I have learned a lot from these two biographies and from the many others that I have read over the years.

The next biography on my list is not about someone who is such a familiar name as Alice Roosevelt but it is very special to me. Challenges: Above and Beyond by Tim and Betty Babcock and Linda Grosskopf is the biography of Tim and Betty Babcock who was the governor of Montana when I was growing up there. More importantly to me, Linda Grosskopf was a classmate of mine who continues to be a dear friend. It is interesting to read about someone who was a very real figure in my life. (Governor Babcock's niece tried to teach me to twirl a baton so I could be in the school majorette group.) It is more interesting still to read words written by someone who I have known for over 40 years, sharing the ups and downs of her life as she has shared mine. As I read about Alice Roosevelt, I often thought of Linda. Linda is in many ways like Mrs. Roosevelt Longworth, which I hope she takes as the compliment that it is.

1 comment:

Jen of A2eatwrite said...

I'm doing something similar right now in terms of comparing Bill Bryson's "biography" of Shakespeare with Shakespeare: A Year in the Life - 1599.

I wanted to find a background book to accompany my Shakespeare class, but 1599 is a very heavy read, and the Bryson book only gives tidbits. I think I'm leaning toward Bryson, though, due to readability and this is not one of the "advanced" classes.