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

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1963, Mexico, Maine. The Wood family is much like its close, Catholic, immigrant neighbors, all dependent on a father?s wages from the Oxford Paper Company. Until the sudden death of Dad, when Mum and the four closely connected Wood girls are set adrift. Funny and to-the-bone moving, When We Were the Kennedys is the story of how this family saves itself, at first by depending on Father Bob, Mum?s youngest brother, a charismatic Catholic priest who feels his new responsibilities deeply. And then, as the nation is ...

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

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Overview

1963, Mexico, Maine. The Wood family is much like its close, Catholic, immigrant neighbors, all dependent on a father’s wages from the Oxford Paper Company. Until the sudden death of Dad, when Mum and the four closely connected Wood girls are set adrift. Funny and to-the-bone moving, When We Were the Kennedys is the story of how this family saves itself, at first by depending on Father Bob, Mum’s youngest brother, a charismatic Catholic priest who feels his new responsibilities deeply. And then, as the nation is shocked by the loss of its handsome Catholic president, the televised grace of Jackie Kennedy—she too a Catholic widow with young children—galvanizes Mum to set off on an unprecedented family road trip to Washington, D.C., to do some rescuing of her own. An indelible story of how family and nation, each shocked by the unimaginable, exchange one identity for another.
   “Monica Wood has written a gorgeous, gripping memoir. I don’t know that I’ve ever pulled so hard for a family.”—Michael Paterniti, author of Driving Mr. Albert

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"When We Were the Kennedys is a sharp, stunning portrait of a family’s grief and healing, and it also offers a refreshing lens through which to view the JFK tragedy, as his family’s loss helps the Woods feel less adrift in their own sea of anguish...Wood writes beautifully." —Washingtonian

"Wood movingly renders her childhood in Mexico, Maine, and her large Catholic family's fight to survive after her father's sudden death. It's a pleasure to linger with her elegant prose, keen eye, and grace of thought."—Reader's Digest

“The book is a shining example of everything a memoir should be.” —U.S. Catholic

"This is a beautifully composed snapshot of how a family, a town—and, later, a country—grieves and goes on...The bonds between family members, neighbors, and coworkers, as well as men and their professions, are all explored here with sensitivity and a sweetness that isn’t saccharine." —Library Journal
 
"Braiding her own story of mourning together with the heartbreak all around her, Wood has written a tender memoir of a very different time." —O, the Oprah Magazine

"Every few years, a memoir comes along that revitalizes the form, that takes us by the hand and leads us into the dream world of our collective past from which we emerge more wholly ourselves. With generous, precise, and unsentimental prose, Monica Wood brilliantly achieves this, bringing back to life the rural paper mill town of not only her youth but America's, too, its bumbling, hard-working, often violent, yet mostly good-hearted lurch forward into the 21st century. When We Were the Kennedys is a deeply moving gem!"—Andre Dubus III, author of House of Sand and Fog and Townie

"This is an extraordinarily moving book, so carefully and artfully realized, about loss and life and love.  Monica Wood displays all her superb novelistic skills in this breathtaking, evocative new memoir.  Wow."—Ken Burns, filmmaker

"Monica Wood has written a gorgeous, gripping memoir. I don't know that I've ever pulled so hard for a family. When We Were the Kennedys captures a shimmering mill-town world on the edge of oblivion, in a voice that brims with hope, feeling, and wonder. The book humbles and soars."—Mike Paterniti, author of Driving Mr. Albert

“Monica Wood is a stunning writer and When We Were the Kennedys a luminous and resonant achievement. If I were standing beside you, I would press this book into your hands.”—Lily King, author of The Pleasing Hour and Father of the Rain

Wood’s book...goes much beyond the story of her family’s grief. The book is a meditation on time... It’s also a record of a vanished way of life... it avoids sentimentalizing small-town life... By bringing such a town to life, with all its complexities and imperfections, it’s to Monica Wood’s great credit that she goes a long way to answering these questions. The New Yorker online

"In her intimate but expansive memoir, Monica Wood explores not only her family's grief but also the national end of innocence. Braiding her own story of mourning together with the heartbreak all around her, Wood has written a tender memoir of a very different time." —Oprah Magazine

"On her own terms, wry and empathetic, Wood locates the melodies in the aftershock of sudden loss...That a memory piece as pacific and unassuming as When We Were the Kennedys should be allowed a seat in the hothouse society of tell-alls is a tribute to the welcoming sensibility of its author and the knowing faith of her publisher. " Boston Globe

"It's a pleasure to linger with her elegant prose, keen eye, and grace of thought." —Reader's Digest "Best of America" issue

"Wood's gorgeously wrought new book...is a sharp, stunning portrait of a family's grief and healing, and it also offer a refreshing lens through which to view the JFK tragedy, as his family's loss helps the Woods feel less adrift in their own sea of anguish." —The Washingtonian "Best of Washington" issue

"Extraordinary, powerful and moving...This heart-wrenching, emotional, sometimes funny, oftentimes astonishing, and always compelling story is far better than the best novel...You will find yourself pausing, rereading entire paragraphs and thinking about what you've read...Read it and weep. Read it and wonder. Read it and rejoice. Kennebec Journal/Waterville (Maine) Morning Sentinel

"This is an extraordinarily moving book, so carefully and artfully realized...Monica Wood displays all her superb novelistic skills in this breathtaking, evocative new memoir. Wow." —Ken Burns, filmmaker

"A tender, plaintive...genuinely compelling depiction of family grief...a bittersweet, end-of-innocence family drama."—Kirkus

"My great book of the summer...It’s a terrific book, telling the story of Wood's family after the sudden death of her father when she was only nine. That’s sad, of course, but the book isn’t about being sad, it’s about being a family. It’s also about an era—the year was 1963—and draws a parallel between Wood's story and the national loss of President Kennedy." Bill Roorbach in Orion Magazine

Kirkus Reviews
A tender, plaintive memoir about the impact of a beloved father's demise on a blue-collar Irish Catholic family. Novelist Wood (Any Bitter Thing, 2005, etc.) grew up in a paper-mill town in Maine where she was one of many "children of well-paid laborers" who were living the American Dream. But everything changed in April 1963 when her father, upon whom the burden of maintaining that dream rested, died at the age of 57. Without his sure and steady presence, the 9-year-old Wood experienced "a profound dislocation, a feeling like slipping on the shifting surface of my allotted scrap of God's earth." The sense of loss was as disorienting for her as it was for her siblings, who now measured their days by how long it had been since they had last seen their father alive. But the Wood children ultimately fared better than Mumma, their housewife mother, and Father Bob, their priest uncle. Mumma haunted her family's home "like a spirit from the ghost stories she and Dad love to tell" and spent her days sleeping in her children's beds. Father Bob succumbed to a crippling depression that sent him to the hospital. Just as the family began putting their lives back together again, another beloved Irish patriarch, John F. Kennedy, also died. Now all Americans knew the kind of loss that had become a fact of life for the Wood family. The author provides a genuinely compelling depiction of family grief, but the Kennedy tragedy functions more as an interesting narrative sidebar than as a major part of the storyline. Bittersweet end-of-innocence family drama.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780547630144
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 7/10/2012
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Monica Wood is the author of four works of fiction, most recently Any Bitter Thing, which spent 21 weeks on the American Booksellers Association extended bestseller list and was named a Book Sense Top Ten pick. Her other fiction includes Ernie’s Ark and My Only Story, a finalist for the Kate Chopin Award.

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Read an Excerpt

Prologue:My Mexico

In mexico, maine, where I grew up, you couldn’t find a single Mexican.
  We’d been named by a band of settlers as a shout-out to the Mexican revolutionaries — a puzzling gesture, its meaning long gone — but by the time I came along, my hometown retained not a shred of solidarity, unless you counted a bottle of Tabasco sauce moldering in the door of somebody’s fridge. We had a badly painted sombrero on the welcome to mexico sign, but the only Spanish I ever heard came from a scratched 45 of Doris Day singing “Que Sera, Sera.”
  In fourth grade, after discovering that the world included a country called Mexico, I spent several befuzzled days wondering why it had named itself after us. Sister Ernestine adjusted my perspective with a pull-down map of the world, on which the country of Mexico showed up as a pepper-red presence and its puny namesake did not appear at all.
  In high summer, when tourists in paneled station wagons caravanned through town on their way to someplace else, hankies pressed comically to their noses against the stench of paper being made, I sat with my friends on the stoop of Nery’s Market to play License Plate. Sucking on blue Popsicles, we observed the procession of vehicles carrying strangers we’d never glimpse again, and accumulated points for every out-of-state plate. These people didn’t linger to look around or buy anything, though once in a while a woman (always a woman, with the smiley red lips all women had then) popped out of an idling car to ask the posse of sun-burnished children, Why Mexico?
  We looked at one another. I was the one in the wrinkled tee shirt bought at the Alamo by my priest uncle, Father Bob, who loved to travel. Or maybe that was my little sister, Cathy, or my next-bigger sister, Betty, or one of our friends. Who could tell one kid from the next? White kids in similar clothes; Catholic children of millworkers and housewives. We lived in triple-decker apartment buildings — we called them “blocks” — or in nondescript houses that our fathers painted every few years. The only Mexico we knew was this one, ours, with its single main street and its one bowling alley and its convent and church steeples and our fathers over there, just across the river, toiling inside a brick-and-steel complex with heaven-high smokestacks that shot great, gorgeous steam clouds into the air so steadily we couldn’t tell where mill left off and sky began.
  Like most Irish Catholic families in 1963, mine had a boiled dinner on Sundays after Mass and salmon loaf on Fridays. We had pictures of Pope John and President John and the Sacred Heart of Jesus hung over our red couch, and on holidays my big brother, the frontman in a local band called the Impacts, came with his wife and babies and guitar to sing story songs packed with repentant jailbirds and useless regret and soldiers bleeding to death on heathery fields. In my friend Denise Vaillancourt’s French Catholic family they ate meat pies — “tourtières” — on Christmas Eve and sang comic Québecois songs about mistaken identity and family kerfuffles. I had another friend, Sheila, who lived just our side of the Mexico-Rumford bridge, in a Protestant, two-child, flood-prone, single-family house; and another friend, Janet, who lived atop her parents’ tavern, the regulars marshmallowed onto the barstools by three in the afternoon listening to Elvis on the jukebox. At St. Theresa’s we greeted our teachers with a singsong “Bonjooour, ma Soeur,” diagrammed morally loaded sentences at flip-top desks, and drew flattering pictures of the Blessed Mother. We went to Mass on Sunday mornings and high holy days, singing four-part Tantum Ergos from the choir loft in a teamwork reminiscent of our fathers sweating out their shifts in noisy, cavernous rooms. The nuns taught us that six went into twelve twice, that the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, that California exported avocados and Maine exported paper — tons and tons of paper, the kind our fathers made.
  Though our elders in Mexico — who spoke French, or Italian, or Lithuanian, or English with a lilt — cherished their cultural differences, which were deep and mysterious and preserved in family lore, what bound us, the children, was bigger and stronger and far more alluring than the past. It was the future we shared, the promise of a long and bountiful life.
  The unlikely source of that promise penetrated our town like a long and endless sigh: the Oxford Paper Company, that boiling hulk on the riverbank, the great equalizer that took our fathers from us every day and eight hours later gave them back, in an unceasing loop of shift work.
  “The Oxford,” we chummily called it, as if it were our friend. From nowhere in town could you not see it.
  The mill. The rumbling, hard-breathing monster that made steam and noise and grit and stench and dreams and livelihoods — and paper. It possessed a scoured, industrial beauty as awesome and ever-changing as the leaf-plumped hills that surrounded us. It made a world unto itself, overbearing and irrefutable, claiming its ground along the Androscoggin, a wide and roiling river that cracked the floor of our valley like the lifeline on a palm. My father made his living there, and my friends’ fathers, and my brother, and my friends’ brothers, and my grandfather, and my friends’ grandfathers. They crossed the footbridge over the river’s tainted waters, carrying their lunch pails into the mill’s overheated gullet five, six, sometimes seven days a week.
  In every household in town, the story we children heard — between the lines, from mothers, fathers, mémères and pépères, nanas and nonnas, implied in the merest gesture of the merest day — was this: The mill called us here. To have you.
  This was one powerful story. Powerful and engulfing, erasing all that came before, just like the mill that had made this story possible. In each beholden family, old languages were receding into a multicultural twilight as the new, sun-flooded story took hold: the story of us, American children of well-paid laborers, beneficiaries of a dream. Every day our mothers packed our fathers’ lunch pails as we put on our school uniforms, every day a fresh chance on the dream path our parents had laid down for us. Our story, like the mill, hummed in the background of our every hour, a tale of quest and hope that resonated similarly in all the songs in all the blocks and houses, in the headlong shouts of all the children at play, in the murmur of all the graces said at all the kitchen tables. In my family, in every family, that story — with its implied happy ending — hinged on a single, beautiful, unbreakable, immutable fact: Dad.
  Then he died.

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Table of Contents

Prologue: My Mexico     xiii

1. Morning     1
2. Wake     21
3. Hiding     35
4. Explorers     55
5. Too Much Stairs     77
6. Paper     97
7. Three Vanillas     111
8. Offer It Up     123
9. The Mystery of the Missing Man     137
10. Just Nervous     149
11. Widows’ Instructions     165
12. Our Nation’s Capital     179
13. Anniversary     199
14. I Hear Music     213

Epilogue: New Page     223
Acknowledgments     233

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 16 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 16 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 21, 2012

    This may be the best book I've ever read

    This is as close to a perfect book as I've read. It is part social history, part memoir, and written so beautifully that I found myself rereading whole sections as though they were poetry. In fact, Wood writes more like a poet than anyone I've read, taking obvious care with every word and sentence. This book got rave blurbs from Ken Burns -- yes, that Ken Burns -- and Lily King, and rave reviews from all over for a reason. It is a triumph of voice and story- telling. Ken Burns says "wow" and I'll second that. Ignore the anonymous two-star non-review (No text. What's up with that?). Read this, and believe me, you won't be sorry. Just don't make any important plans once you start. It's really hard to put down.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 11, 2012

    Monica Wood is one of my favorite authors. This memoir is excel

    Monica Wood is one of my favorite authors. This memoir is excellent. Perhaps I like it so much because I recognize those early 1960's when the mills were the heart of small Maine towns situated next to rivers and John Kennedy was the hope for the future. As a prior reviewer notes, it is a social history, as well as a memoir. It drew me in and elicited memories of childhood. Amazing how she was able to portray both the child's viewpoint at the time and the context that came as an adult. Please do not make us wait so long for your next book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 5, 2012

    This is a beautifully written, touchingly narrated story of a yo

    This is a beautifully written, touchingly narrated story of a young girl -- and now a mature woman -- looking back on a painful chapter in her life with love, tenderness, nostalgia for times past, and uncanny insight into what lies ahead. I cherished every page. Ms. Woods reminded me, too, of my own deep hometown roots, the value of community, family, traditions. A must-read.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 22, 2012

    THE TOP TEN REASONS TO READ MONICA WOOD’S MEMOIR WHEN WE W

    THE TOP TEN REASONS TO READ MONICA WOOD’S MEMOIR
    WHEN WE WERE THE KENNEDYS

    #10 It’s the best book I’ve read in YEARS. My husband says the same thing. Agreement like that doesn’t happen very often.
    #9 Monica Wood’s initials are M. W. —which surely stand for Master Wordsmith.
    #8 The book opens with the sudden death of nine-year-old Monica Wood’s father, and that’s just the start of the trials and tragedies in this memoir. Yet OPTIMISM sings through its pages.
    #7 Monica Wood is a fiction writer first and foremost, and her memoir peels away layer after layer to reveal the story—just as the best fiction does.
    #6 If you loved the town/city you grew up in, Monica will make you love it even more.
    #5 If you’re of a certain age and grew up in the 50’s and 60’s, you’ll revel in the detailed time capsule she’s created.
    #4 Monica Wood’s family, the characters in the story, will seem like you already know them; or if not, you’ll want to adopt them.
    #3 It’s a book you can’t stop reading at the same time you don’t want it to ever end.
    #2 Monica Wood says more in a single phrase than most authors do with piles and piles of paragraphs and pages.
    #1 While Monica Wood shares her TRUTH to its core in her memoir, she simultaneously helps readers to understand their own TRUTHS.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 13, 2013

    Sweet sweet memoir

    Monica Wood will be forever blessed for honoring her family with this book. I loved all of it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 2, 2013

    Poignant story

    I was so moved by this book. Growing up in Maine during that era, I connected with so many parts of this lovely tale.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 23, 2013

    Melody and Sierra

    (No my brother isn't here and I DON'T RP boys)

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 5, 2013

    This memoir is beautifully written and very moving. I felt as if

    This memoir is beautifully written and very moving. I felt as if I knew this family. I am the same age as the author and also grew up attending a Catholic school. I remember exactly where I was when I heard about Kennedy. The author bings an era back to life, as well as the end of life as we knew it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 4, 2013

    Sue Miller delivers...

    Heartbreaking & melancholy for those taking care of a parent with Alheimers.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 20, 2012

    Beautifully written page turner

    The most engaging, emotional book i have read in years! Highly, highly recommended!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 22, 2012

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    Posted April 6, 2013

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    Posted July 1, 2012

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    Posted August 5, 2012

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    Posted November 18, 2012

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