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Queen Elizabeth in spotlight

‘Monarchy’ is a timely handbook on her reign

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THE MONARCHY: AN ORAL BIOGRAPHY OF ELIZABETH II; by Deborah Hart Strober and Gerald S. Strober; Broadway, 574 pages; $32.50.

An oral biography is a tricky thing to pull off.

Merle Miller, a journalist, tried it with Harry Truman more than 20 years ago, and it became a best-seller because of Truman's salty ways of expressing himself. (Never mind that seven years ago, Truman scholars examined the transcript of Miller's alleged interviews with Truman and found that the author had tampered with them and made up some of Truman's more colorful observations.)

It's doubtful that Deborah Hart Strober and Gerald S. Strober will fall suspect to the same blunder with "The Monarchy: An Oral Biography of Elizabeth II." After all, they have distinguished themselves with other oral biographies — the presidencies of John F. Kennedy, Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

The queen is also a timely subject as she will celebrate her 50th year on the throne in February.

But the authors' approach is different from the standard oral biography, which centers on interviews with the subject.

Miller's book on Truman consisted only of the words of Truman. It might have been called "Truman in His Own Words." The Strobers, on the other hand, base the story of Queen Elizabeth exclusively on interviews with hundreds of people who are currently close to her or have had relationships or business with her over the years.

This makes the book a decidedly secondary source — based on hearsay — that is not as interesting as a conversation with the queen might be. It also makes the book less trustworthy, because it represents the opinions of those people who deal with her, but not her own opinions.

That said, this book covers a lot of ground and tells a very interesting story, although not in a traditional narrative form. Because the interviews are introduced and then organized in successive blocks, the overall effect is more like an encyclopedia than a biography:

— Part One, for example, deals with the House of Windsor, the ancestral line through which Elizabeth succeeded to the throne, and then the specific story of how she became queen after her uncle Edward, then Prince of Wales, abdicated.

— Part Two explores the history of the monarchy and discusses the monarch's duties, documenting some of her interactions with the government and other nations of the world.

— Part Three is about the "Queen and the Commonwealth" and concentrates on her relationship to other British nations, such as Canada, Australia and Africa.

— Part Four is arguably the most important section because it treats what the authors think are the "Major Issues of the Reign," such as Northern Ireland, Suez and Hong Kong and the Falkland Islands War.

— Part Five analyzes the "Evolution of the Monarchy," including social attitudes toward the queen and the problems the royal family has endured over the past several years, including the difficult marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana and Diana's tragic death.

— Part Six, the final one, looks ahead to the "Future of the Monarchy," asking who is the heir apparent (Prince Charles) and how the monarchy needs to be modernized to meet future challenges. Several people are quoted as worrying that Charles is "too outspoken" to be effective as a king and that the validity of the Church of England will be questioned.

Whatever the result, this work will be a valuable handbook for Americans to follow the action.

E-mail: dennis@desnews.com