Through a Glass, Beautifully
Monica Wood looks back to the year it all went wrong.
By Richard Grant
Readers of Monica Wood have long marveled at her powers of narrative conjuration, her ability to summon characters and landscapes and all-but-forgotten modes of living out of, as it seems, something even thinner than air, infusing them with raw vitality, and sending them off to their fates on the printed page. When We Were the Kennedys (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, Massachusetts; hardcover; 261 pages; $24 ), a work of nonfiction, takes a very different approach: tipping present-day readers out of our armchairs and iPads and dropping us half a century into the past.
We plump down in April of 1963. JFK is in the White House; a liberal Pope is in the Vatican; spring is unfolding in western Maine. We find ourselves in Mexico, a thriving mill town of ten thousand souls on the banks of the Androscoggin, “a wide and roiling river that cracked the floor of our valley like the lifeline on a palm.” It’s an innocent time — “an era when mothers throw their children into a teeming neighborhood with the instructions ‘I don’t want to see you kids till supper’ ” — but also a time of rapid, often unsettling change. And we’re living it all, fresh and new, through the mind and senses of nine-year-old Monica, next-to-youngest of five siblings in an Irish-Catholic, working-class family, a girl as keen-eyed and deductive as her latest literary heroine, Nancy Drew.
Monica Wood, the seasoned author and frequent Down East contributor, is fully upfront about the perils of basing a narrative on one’s own childhood recollections, especially decades after the fact. She recounts in an Author’s Note her discovery that a certain November blizzard, prominent in the storyline, never actually occurred. What to do? Wood decided that the blizzard was “so embedded in my psyche . . . so inextricable from the remembered events” that she left it in. Good on her! But also, caveat emptor.
What transpires in the pages of this book is a succession of shocks — emotional, historical, cultural, and economic — falling one upon the heels of another. Many will come as no surprise to the reader, who already knows how Jack Kennedy died and Maine’s awesome paper industry fell into a long, agonizing decline. Others, like the sudden death by heart attack of Monica’s hard-working, well-loved father, are sprung early in the narrative. The object here is not surprise, but revelation: the discovery that life goes on even when you think it can’t, it mustn’t. “All those obituaries, and people still went dancing.”
The book’s unifying motif, captured deftly in its title — that haunting analogy between the First Family and the author’s own — is surely a bittersweet thing, but the sweetness is there all the same. “I’m used to loving the president we have now — the Irish Catholic President Kennedy — because Mum has taught us to love him. His windblown hair, his Hyannis tan, his pity for the poor. She refers to him as ‘Jack’ and loves that he won’t wear a hat in the cold.” So many people felt that way, and readers old enough to remember this will likely find Wood’s story all the more compelling.
The harrowing specifics of the assassination — “Jackie getting off the plane, twenty-four hours since bang-shock-bang, still wearing the trim pink suit, its bodice defaced with blood and brain” — are no longer fresh, but they awaken readily enough. Wood and I, it appears, heard the news under identical circumstances (during fifth-grade recess) and learned the same new words (caisson, cortège) from the funeral newscast. Wood lays it all out with piercing particularity.
“We are, it turns out,” young Monica comes to realize, “bracingly closer to a family that seems equal parts real and make-believe: stoic and storied and rich, admired the whole world over. Imagine my surprise.”
Most readers will feel a comparable surprise, I think, in discovering how easily they can lose themselves in a life story so unlike their own: the interrupted childhood of a smart and plucky girl from Mexico, Maine.
Richard Grant is a long-time contributor to Down East and is the author of Another Green World.