When We Were the Kennedys:
A Memoir from Mexico, Maine

by Monica Wood

Houghton, Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. ISBN 978-0-547-63014-4.
Reviewed by Lisa Shirah-Hiers
Posted on 04/19/2013

Nonfiction: Memoir

Monica Wood's writing is simply luminous as she magically conjures up a lost place and time—a small industrial Eastern town on the eve of the Kennedy assassination. The story of her father's sudden, shattering death and her family's attempt to cope with the incomprehensible loss is brought to vivid life through her precise and poetic prose. Her skill at characterization is so refined that I felt as though I really knew each member of the family personally: her no-nonsense little sister, Cathy; her solid, dependable big sister Anne; her forever-young handicapped sister Betty; her overwhelmed and anxious mother; her heart-broken Catholic Priest uncle, "Father Bob"; her sometimes incomprehensible Lithuanian landlords the Norkuses; and, of course, her beloved dad.

Wood's story begins the morning of her father's death of sudden cardiac arrest on the way to his job at the local paper mill. Because much of the story is told through the eyes of her fourth-grade self, we experience her shock as she struggles to understand what the loss will mean for her, her mother and her siblings. Her poignant realization that anyone can be taken from us at any time is painfully raw and moving. Through her eyes we watch her mother and her uncle's sometimes incomprehensible response to grief: a widow standing still and alone in a dark room, unable to return to her empty bed; a beloved uncle's hidden alcoholism and brief institutionalization.

"We were an ordinary family;" she writes, "a mill family, not the stuff of opera. And yet...my memory of that day reverberates down the decades as something close to music. Emotion, sensation, intuition. I see the day—or chips and bits, as if looking through a kaleidoscope—but I also hear it, a faraway composition in the melodious language of grief..." (p. 7)

We watch as young Monica escapes her grief by delving into the world of Little Women and Nancy Drew and attempts to write her own novel poignantly titled The Mystery of the Missing Man. Here is a child in love with words, who copies them over and over on the beautifully made paper her father had brought home from the mill. Here is a child with the keen observational skills of the gifted author she will become.

Lost father archetypes abound: the death of her actual father, the closing of the paper mill on which he and the whole community depended, and the assassination of President Kennedy, father of the nation—a national tragedy that somehow brought her mother out of paralyzing depression. "In a different year Mum might have done like the other mothers, who are meeting at grocery counters to buy the Friday fish and break into tears. Instead, Mum stays home, watching the televised spectacle with a ferocious, private empathy. She, too, knows about bearing up. She'd followed her own husband's casket out of a church fogged with incense, her own mild brown eyes wounded and dry, her own coat buttoned up just so, as if to show everyone—even Jackie, had she been watching—how these things were done." (p. 170)

Though it doesn't shy away from the tragic and heart-breaking details, Wood's story is ultimately one of hope and healing, the power of love and family and faith which overcomes all.

Read an excerpt from this book.

Monica Wood is the author of four works of fiction, most recently Any Bitter Thing, which spent twenty-one weeks on the American Booksellers Association extended best-seller list and was named a Book Sense Top Ten pick. Her other fiction includes Ernie's Ark, Secret Language, and My Only Story, a finalist for the Kate Chopin Award. Her moving memoir, When We Were the Kennedys, is the winner of the 2012 Sarton Memoir Award. Visit her website.

Check out our interview with the author of When We Were the Kennedys.

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