Saturday 24 Oct 2020 | 23:59 | SYDNEY
Saturday 24 Oct 2020 | 23:59 | SYDNEY

Things I have changed my mind about this year


Alex Oliver


23 December 2009 14:14

I didn't realise I had a mind to change about Laura Bush until I read Curtis Sittenfeld's American Wife. While she was apparently one of the most popular first ladies in history, I gave her negligible thought — a perfectly-coiffed president's companion doing the usual first-wifely things for her powerful husband – that was about as far as I got. My love of a good novel, however, unravelled my studious indifference.

American Wife is a story about the life of Alice Blackwell, a first lady around the time of George W Bush's presidency. It's a fictionalised account, but constructed using the edifices of that presidency (the wars, the political dynasty) and some central events in Laura Bush's real life. 

So there are some pivotal elements to Alice's story which were transposed from Mrs Bush's own experiences: a car crash in her teens that killed a young friend, her career before meeting her husband (a librarian and teacher with a love of books and passion for education and literacy), and her work as first lady (campaigning for literacy and childhood development programs, for global health issues and breast cancer awareness).

But because it's fiction, we get some tantalising glimpses of what the thoughts, motivations and feelings of someone like Mrs Bush might be, which could be hinted at, but never credibly asserted, in a biography. And there are several, such as Ann Gerhart's 2004 biography The Perfect Wife: The Life and Choices of Laura Bush. 'People who knew Laura socially or worked with her on projects,' Gerhart wrote, 'came to assume she was far more liberal than her husband, although there was never any hard evidence for this.' 

American Wife got me thinking about the strictures on the life of a political spouse, how differing political views might play out in a marriage, and casts this notorious episode in America's political history in a slightly different light. All this in a work of fiction. Worth a read over the holidays, if you dare...

Photo by Flickr user Westbank Library District, used under a Creative Commons license.