It's April, 1963, in Mexico, Maine — a town on the Androscoggin River in the Western part of the state. A town where business and life revolve around the Oxford Paper Company, the heaving, bustling mill right over the river in Rumford. A town with workaday rhythms and one main street and lots of families like Monica Wood's — ordinary, industrious, religious. A town that many readers will identify with, if not recognize, though it is much changed.
Wood is getting ready for school. It's a morning like so many other mornings. And that's where her new book, When We Were the Kennedys: A Memoir from Mexico, Maine, begins.
She is in fourth grade, nine years old, when her father dies of a heart attack on his way to work at the mill. She will never be the same. She has one younger sister, practical, take-charge Cathy, as well as two older ones —mentally disabled Betty and schoolteacher Anne: "the thing that holds fast to the shifting ground." (There is also an even older, married brother named Barry.) It is Anne who gets the Wood family through the immediate aftermath of Dad's death. She cooks meals, arranges the funeral, comforts both the girls and their mother, who holds it together just barely; Mrs. Wood is shell-shocked, distant, broken, taken to "lying down" for long spells. But she is not ruined. "Every day she rises, puts on her glasses, tries to look like everybody else," Wood tells us firmly.
Though Wood, who now lives in Portland, recounts her story with the accumulated wisdom of several decades, her words and tone recall childhood. These memories are told in a compassionate voice, one that honors the young girl who lived them.
It is easy to understand why Wood seeks refuge at her friend Denise Vaillancourt's house, which "seems like a place where nothing can go wrong." She buries herself in books — the Nancy Drew series, Anne of Green Gables, Little Women. She worships her priest uncle, Father Bob, who wrestles with his own demons. She tries to follow the contract negotiations at the Oxford Paper Company. There is a lot going on. Wood maintains a light touch throughout, capturing the simultaneous confusion and insight of childhood.
Then another tragedy strikes. On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy is assassinated. Just over six months have passed since Dad's death, and when Wood hears that a Terrible Thing has happened, she fears the absolute worst. It is not that. Wood admits that on that November day, "Cathy and I are possibly the only two citizens of the United States of America who receive the heart-jangling, era-shaping news . . . with a gulping wallop of relief. Mum is home, making a salmon loaf for our no-meat Friday supper, alive alive alive."
She watches her mother take solace in the national narrative. "Jackie's story made Mum's bearable," Wood writes. "What happened to my family in April is now happening to the Kennedys; what happened to the Kennedys is now happening to the whole country; and the whole country cannot stop crying." There is comfort in shared misery.