American Princess by Stephanie Marie Thornton Tells the Story of Alice Roosevelt
The latest novel from Stephanie Marie Thornton is a departure for the author. Her previous novels have featured heroines from ancient Egypt and Greece to 6th century Constantinople and 12th century Mongolia. With American Princess (Berkley, 2019), the author has moved to the 20th century and has made Alice Roosevelt—the wild and impetuous daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt—her heroine.
When I asked about this transition, Thornton said: “It has meant a whole lot more research! Whereas stories set in the ancient world allow the writer a little more freedom—there are bigger gaps between Recorded Historical Event A and Recorded Historical Event B—most of Alice’s life was documented in great detail. However, all that coverage also meant that I was hopefully able to capture an authentic glimpse of Alice’s personality, given that I had access to her diaries, journals, and letters.”
Thornton’s novel details Alice’s life from her teen years (as she is launched into society just months after her father is sworn in as president) and continues through her ups and downs in love and life as she smokes, swears and gambles her way through two world wars, an infamous family feud and numerous heartaches.
Her story seemed to Thornton like it was just waiting to be written. “I’ve been a big fan of Theodore Roosevelt since my student teaching days when I had to prepare a lesson about the Progressive presidents and realized how much charisma Theodore Roosevelt possessed in just his little finger,” Thornton explained. “Later, I became intrigued with Alice’s story when I read Roosevelt’s quote, “I can either run the country or I can control Alice. I cannot possibly do both.” From there, I stumbled on a picture book about the wild escapades of Alice’s youth and then discovered that she remained untameable for the entire ninety-six years of her long life. I knew hers was a story I needed to write!”
Of course switching from writing about women from ancient history, however well known, to writing about a woman whose every move, every clothing choice, every relationship was written about, analysed and speculated over by the press meant a change in research technique. “I started with Stacy Cordery’s biography Alice and then dug up every book about the Roosevelts that I could get my hands on. I was also able to visit the Roosevelt home at Sagamore Hill, plus I received access to to…Alice’s collection of papers at the Library of Congress. It truly makes a difference to be able to walk where your characters walked and see what they saw, not to mention reading their own words as major events unfolded.”
Although Thornton found it a huge benefit that Alice’s personal documents, letters, and journals were collected and accessible she felt the added pressure of writing about a well-known persona. With so much information available, she had to be sure to get it right. A major element of the story was the long-running, and at times very bitter, feud between Alice and her cousins FDR and Eleanor. Thornton discovered that there were at least two, in fact sometimes more, than two sides to every story.
“I was surprised at first about the ruthlessness on both sides of this war between cousins. Considering that they were family, they really threw some punches that were far below the belt. It intrigued me that Alice and Eleanor were able to forgive each other later on in life, but then again, that’s what family does, right?”
The author’s current work-in-progress features another American icon who suffered from the public gaze: Jackie Kennedy. “If I thought I had to do a ton of research for Alice Roosevelt’s story, I had to do ten times as much to reimagine Jackie’s life!” Thornton said.
American Princess gives readers a glimpse into a world of high society and glamour and a heroine who, despite her apparent wealth and position, felt caged and constricted and determined to push the boundaries of that constriction in whatever way she could.
About the contributor: Lisa Redmond is a writer, currently working a novel about 17th-century Scottish witches. She blogs about books, writing and women in history.