By Matt Hickman
Earlier this month, the fifth book published by Chugiak High School history teacher Stephanie Marie Thornton, went on sale.
Like the previous four, ‘American Princess’ is historical fiction, chronicles, as accurately as possible, the life of Alice Roosevelt, the precocious and irascible daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt.
“As a history teacher I have always been intrigued by that family. I had to teach my first lesson on them and realized there was a lot more to it than we’d learned in the history books,” Thornton said. “(Roosevelt) was an enigmatic president who did a lot of interesting things.”
American Princess also follows in Thornton’s standard in that it centers around a strong and independent woman. Her previous efforts were ficitional takes on the likes of Genghis Khan’s wife and the mother and sister of Alexander the Great. Her next project in the works is a fictionalized take on Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
“The first two I wrote were set in ancient Egypt and Byzantium and I was shocked and appalled because I teach history and if you go through these textbooks, you might find a mention of these women’s names, but that’s about it,” Thornton said. “These women, for their time, were powerful individuals that history has glossed over.”
Thornton stumbled across Alice Roosevelt’s story by chance. Happening through a gift shop while in Washington D.C., Thornton came across a children’s book called ‘Mind Your Manners, Alice Roosevelt’.
“Alice was a handful so this kids’ book was pretty adorable,” Thornton said. “She was a trendsetter ahead of her time. She wasn’t afraid to drive cars, smoke cigarretes and give her dad a run for his money. One of my favorite quotes was from a friend of the Teddy who told him to get his daughter under control.’ Teddy replied, ‘I can do one of two things — run the country, or control Alice, but I can’t do both.’”
According to the publisher’s press release, “When her father took office, Alice Roosevelt immediately became a celebrity and fashion icon—her choice of pale blue became known as “Alice blue” which sparked a sensation. And while today, for the most part, First Children are off-limits to reporters, Alice was dubbed the “Other Washington Monument” by the press. Her antics, such as smoking in public, carrying a garter snake in her handbag, jumping into a swimming pool fully clothed while on a diplomatic tour, became front page headlines.”
Alice turned 18 while her father was president, and in addition to her antics, she had romances with some of the most powerful men in Washington.
“She was there for most of her father’s first term — he had taken over after McKinley was assassinated,” Thornton said. “She got married to congressman Nick Longworth in the White House. He became Speaker of the House and later on in her 30s, she became mistress to one of D.C.’s most famous Senators. Her husband was cheating, so it was OK.”
Over time, Thornton has established a set of rules for herself when writing historical fiction. She also tries to borrow concepts from authors of other genres, citing Suzanne Collins’ ‘Hunger Games’ series as a recent example.
“Just because it’s historical fiction there are slow spots; so when you’re trying to pull in pieces from all sorts of genres and putting together the best of those,” she said. “Hopefully I’m modeling some of my writing after that intriguing style to make people want to keep turning pages… My No. 1 rule is it has to be something that could have happened with a motivation that is legitimate. With Roosevelt and Kennedy it’s much more recent so there’s a whole lot more that’s documented. So I didn;t have as much creative license, whereas a woman 3,500 years ago in Egypt is more bare bones.”
Alice Roosevelt is the most recent female historical figure Thornton has taken on, but in Jackie Kennedy, she’ll be taking on a much more recent character with her next book.
“I feel like we’re just far enough away that I could get away with that,” Thornton said. “People know the core story of Jackie, but there’s a lot of little pieces lost along the way. I didn’t realize she’s responsible for saving Grand Central Station, or that there’s an Egyptian Temple in the Met(ropolitan Museum of Art) because she helped with the Aswan Dam Project. She got Jack to come out and save these monuments, so Egypt gifted that… She also went through multiple miscarriages and JFK’s rampant affairs.”
Thornton said that, so far, she’s not run afoul of any estates in her literary endeavors.
“I did have to have a converstaion with my publisher’s legal department, but essentially, because this is fiction, and very clearly labeled as fiction, it’s OK,” she said, adding she did contact Alice Roosevelt’s granddaughter, who is still living. “The granddaughter in American Princess is portrayed in a positive light — not that there’s anything like a skeleton I found.”
Thornton said Alice Roosevelt’s story stands the test of time because she was the first White House celebrity, and, in some ways, a pioneer of ‘reality’ fame.
“I had to figure out why she was so loud and boisterous,” Thornton said. “She was one of America’s first media sensations. She was the only daughter of Theodore’s first wife — she died while he was in the New York congress. He got a telegram his wife was dying after she had just had their daughter. On the same day, his mom died.”
Thornton said after losing his wife and mother, Teddy went adventuring out west.
“For years she didn’t have her dad around. There was a new wife around to raise Alice but she was always the other in the family and I think everything she did was to get dad’s attention,” Thornton said. “Theodore was always the loudest in the room. It was said of Teddy Roosevelt that he ‘had to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.’ That’s why she had to do those things.”
Thornton said she is hopeful that movie possibilities will come from the Jackie Kennedy book, but so far, the only adaptation she’s been asked about was for her book about the wife of Genghis Khan, and the inquirer was Chinese state media.
In the meantime, Thornton, in true Alaskan fashion, will write and write and write, especially through the long, dark Alaskan winters.
“I drag my laptop out in the summertime and I’m squinting on my deck in the sun. But winter, there’s a lot of time to fill — it’s so dark,” Thornton said, continuing on about the wealth of published writers in the Last Frontier. “If you’ve been up here long enough you’ll probably wind up with that Alaskan independence… Alaska makes you tougher. If you survive the winters and backpack and hike, it makes you tougher. There’s also perseverance, which helps when you’re going through the edits; it’s a bit of a longer process so you’ve got to have some of that sticktoitiveness.”