Book Club Review December 2017-When We Were the Kennedys

Image result for when we were the kennedys ny times reviewDecember 2017 – When We Were the Kennedys by Monica Wood

blog by Cindy Bushey

Thankfully, it is rare to have traumatic events so huge that they affect the national psyche.  Probably the most recent was the attack on the World Trade Center in New York City in September 2001.  Certainly, people remember exactly where they were when they first heard that news, and there are few happenings on the national stage that remain fixed in just that way in people’s memories.  However, the assassination of dashing young President John F. Kennedy is one such event, and most members of Zion’s Book Club can remember the emotions and feelings his young family inspired in us.  Many of us can pinpoint our location when that tragic event unfolded in Dallas, Texas in 1963.  The title of our book selection for December – When We Were the Kennedys – appeared primed to take our members back to that time in our personal histories.

So it was with anticipation that we followed this recollection of Monica Wood, a girl growing up in Mexico, Maine in an Irish Catholic family with a stay-at-home mother, an immigrant father from Canada who worked in the town’s paper mill, four siblings (one of whom had mental challenges), and an uncle who was a priest and served in a nearby parish.  The depiction of Catholic schools and sisters teaching the classes brought back memories for at least one of our readers.  While Ms. Wood admits in the forward to her book that memory can be capricious, her research and conversations with family and friends certainly supplied the details of a childhood that rang true to our members.  Her descriptions were painstaking and endless.  We understood the diversity of ethnic backgrounds in the town.  We sympathized when she lost her father to a heart attack at a relatively young age and watched how her family members coped with the loss, but our feelings were tempered by the relentless dwelling on her emotions.  It frustrated us that her mother morphed into an unsympathetic character, reluctant to face the world due to a shame at being a widow.  And we kept waiting for the Kennedy connection.

As one of our readers pointed out, that feeling of aloneness when newly widowed is still accurate.  When you were once identified as a couple, it is hard to be the sole survivor.  She found that people were happy to go out with you somewhere but less eager to invite you into their homes.  Through no fault of your own, a particular stigma seems to have become attached to you.  In that light, the author’s mother’s reactions were more understandable.  As the body-based operations of the paper mill gave way to more mechanization, readers were reminded of our local paper mill in Spring Grove and its economic impact on the town and surrounding area.  It also drove home how dependent small towns are on their local industries.  The laid-back, more peaceful world of small towns that we all appreciate so much is very vulnerable to economic factors, and it is common to find small towns throughout the country just fading away.  This also has an impact on the national psyche.  As one reader pointed out, people from small towns are from SOMEwhere – their identity is wrapped up in the place where they live.  People from the suburbs could easily be picked up and moved to another suburb where they could again begin living without any great disturbance in their lives.  There’s not much in a suburb to inspire a great sense of love of place.  With all due respect to author Thomas Wolfe, you CAN go home again to a small town and find the familiar.   If this book shows one thing, it is how rooted we are in our small towns.

However, what it did not show was any major connection to the Kennedys other than that two wives and mothers who lost their husbands.  It somehow gave comfort to Ms. Wood’s mother to relate to another Catholic widow having the same experiences as she did but on the national stage.  This tenuous comparison did not sit well with our readers who, by and large, found this book a difficult read due to the endless description.  The discussion afterward quickly moved in other directions.  We definitely could relate to the economic vicissitudes that dramatically impact people’s lives and can cause a downward spiral for a formerly robust town.  Once we left our pre-Christmas party and discussion (kudos to Peggy for again opening her home and to Matt and Luann for generously providing pizza – look out, small towns quickly adopt new traditions!!), emails kept flying as the topic grew to include generational poverty and the difficulty of revitalizing areas formerly dependent on a single industry.  In an area with a large agricultural background such as ours, it is only too easy to imagine natural and man-made disasters that could have wide-spread negative impacts.

At this season of good will and good cheer, Zion’s readers are thankful for our group and the stimulating discussions that open our eyes to new viewpoints – even if we were not particularly thankful about this book.  We had one reader give it one thumb down, two give it a knuckle down, seven remain neutral,  one give it a knuckle up and two give it one thumb up.  The club returns on January 9th with Penguin the Magpie – The Odd Little Bird Who Saved a Family as our selection.  We welcome new members from within and without our church family; if you enjoy spirited conversation and reading, please consider joining us.  Merry Christmas to all!