Review: Monica Wood’s warm memoir depicts love & loss in Maine.
When We Were the Kennedys: A Memoir from Mexico, Maine by Monica Wood. Mariner Books of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 231 pp.
In her stellar memoir, Monica Wood portrays her family’s quiet woe in the wake of her father’s death and the trauma, a few months later, of JFK’s assassination. Monica was only nine when her oversized, ebullient father fell dead that spring. He was on his way to work at another mighty entity, the Oxford paper mill, the big employer in their tiny Maine town of Mexico.
Wood juggles multiple, ongoing stories, including her widowed mother’s shame and depression; her three lively sisters who help Monica cope; her kindly, beloved Uncle Bob, her mother’s brother, a priest devastated and derailed by his brother-in-law’s death; the mill itself, provider of good jobs, sower of deadly toxins, site of increasing strife; friends and neighbors, including the Wood’s odd, immigrant landlords, who are played for humor but who were terrifying to young Monica; her teachers, the loving, eccentric nuns at school; the ripple effect in her large Irish Catholic family of the Kennedy assassination—and especially its effect on her mother; and Wood’s genesis as a writer.
A successful novelist before turning to memoir, Wood’s experience shows. She blends her childhood world and point of view with the wiser eye of her adult self. Often we see what her child self cannot—the author’s skill here a delight. Her prose is lovely, rich with details and metaphors. She does a lot with implication, knowing how much to leave unsaid.
After a college student, humming an aria he’s practicing, finds her fallen father outside his garage, news spreads. Here is the writer now, reflecting, before shading into her childhood perspective and her younger self’s mistaken, heartbreaking first inkling of loss:
We were an ordinary family. A mill family, not the stuff of opera. And yet, beginning with the singing boy who found Dad, 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, a harmonized affair punctuated now and again by an odd, crystalline note fluting up on its own. A knock on the door. A throaty cry. . . .
My mother bursts into song. Or so it seems, on this morning in which nothing is as it seems.
Ohhh. My mother sings. Ohhh.
And then here, in the midst of an early scene in the family’s kitchen, Moncia observes her mother and uncle:
“Time for bed,” she says, still sitting. After the heartwreck of the first day, the sustained shock of the news, the ordeal of the wake, she’s composed herself for good and at great cost, and her body when I press myself against it feels like a gently closed door. It’s been thirty-eight and a half hours. Any further tears—thousands, millions, in the years she has remaining of her own brief life—she will shed out of our sight.
Father Bob is still here, sitting next to the birdcage, breathing like a gut-shot deer. Mum looks up. “Father,” she murmurs to her baby brother, “you’re going to have to pull yourself together.”
Another turn of phrase new to me, and it too sounds just right, for we have burst, haven’t we? We lie in pieces that must be pulled together, and Father Bob has to help whether or not he believes he can. He will pull himself together because his big sister reminds him that he must.
Wood’s interweaving of her adult knowledge here is deft, but it’s how she deploys young Monica, stunned, struggling to triangulate her loss, that renders the emotional wallop. Her story and her storytelling skill have been recognized. When We Were the Kennedys won the 2012 May Sarton Memoir Award for best memoir by U.S. or Canadian woman and the 2013 Maine Literary Award for memoir, among other honors.
This is one of my favorite memoirs. I pressed it on my wife, who pressed it on her four sisters. This Spring I taught it to an honors class of college freshmen; they’re a tough crew—they favor edgy circumstances, and they recoil from middle-aged sensibilities—but they liked it, and a few loved it.
I cherish its storytelling grace. I found Wood’s sentences thrilling, and was moved by the loving kindness and understated sadness that suffuse her narrative. Her book lingers in the mind, beckoning repeat readings. When We Were the Kennedys possesses an easygoing literary mastery
[See my interview with Monica Wood about the memoir genre and writing When We Were the Kennedys.]