Book Review | When We Were the Kennedys

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This year millions of words will be printed and spoken about the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. None will be as moving as When We Were the Kennedys, a memoir by Monica Wood. Seven months before the gunshots in Dallas, the author’s father, Albert Wood, a 57-year-old woodyard foreman at the Oxford Paper Company in Rumford, Maine, died suddenly one morning in the driveway to his garage, in the neighboring town of Mexico. Monica was 9 years old. She heard the news from her 8-year-old sister, Cathy, who was getting ready for school and still had a brush stuck in her hair.

Such details give the memoir its almost unbearable weight. “Words can pin their readers to place, confer permanence on the ethereal, make the unimaginable true,” Wood writes. Her brilliant, lyrical words pin us to Mexico, where fathers worked in the mill just across the river and mothers raised children in triple-decker houses called “blocks.” Monica and her mother and three sisters lived in the Norkus Block, named for the Lithuanian couple who owned it.

By the end of the memoir, we know every inch of the Norkus Block, Mexico, and “the mighty, mighty Oxford.” We also know the time–those hopeful, romantic days before Vietnam, before Watergate, before the mighty, mighty Oxford went down under a cascade of labor disputes, competition from foreign papermakers, and a series of new owners (currently NewPage Corp.). Before all the bright, ethereal promises of Camelot vanished.

Strangely, Kennedy’s assassination gave solace to Wood’s grief-stunned mother: “She never directly compared herself to Jackie, but often in the following months, standing at the stove, she might suddenly stop in mid-stir, cock her head like a bird, and say, ‘I wonder how she’s making out.’ … For now, Jackie’s story made Mum’s bearable.”

Hence the title: A millworker’s widow and her little brood shared their tragedy with “a family that seems equal parts real and make-believe.”

For a glimpse behind the scenes of that mythic family, I recommend Capturing Camelot, by Kitty Kelley. It’s a collection of photos, some never previously published, taken by the author’s friend Stanley Tretick, who covered the Kennedy White House for Look. They are familiar and heart-breaking, none more so than that of John F. Kennedy Jr. peeking out from beneath his father’s desk in the Oval Office. He would die in a plane crash in 1999, just days before the 77-year-old photographer passed away.


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