Thursday, August 23, 2012

Jack 1939 by Francine Mathews

44. Jack 1939
by Francine Mathews
fiction, 2012
finished 8/8/12



The story of second sons is legendary. The first son, the heir, is supposed to be stable, serious, dutiful. He doesn't get into 'obvious' trouble. His escapades are mostly hidden. But the second son is freed of the older brother's responsibilities. PG Wodehouse makes mention of the useless second son (he was a third son, himself). No wonder they are a little wild. What have they got to lose? No one expects anything of them. I've been thinking about this subject ever since I finished reading Jack 1939, and here we are today with a modern example, Prince Harry's 'adventures' in Las Vegas.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born two years after Joseph Patrick Kennedy, Jr. Joe was not only his father's namesake, but the golden boy, of whom great things were expected. When he died in 1944, Jack was supposed to carry on in his brother's footsteps. But before Joe's death, Jack was the playboy, the ladies' man, the callow lad who wasn't taken seriously. He was also extremely ill with a mysterious ailment, and almost died. Francine Mathews does a wonderful job telling the reader about young Jack, and though the book is fictional, there are many truths and facts within the made up story. We are now all pretty jaded when it comes to looking back at our former President. So much unseemly information has come out about him in the years since his death in 1963. Jack 1939 gives the reader a chance to see this earlier Jack, the boy who was shown no love or warmth by his mother, and whose father set the poor example of manhood that so many later Kennedys lived by. We feel great sympathy for the person who didn't expect to live very long, and so lived life with a fearless verve.

In Jack 1939, one man recognized what Jack Kennedy was capable of, and that was the President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Though the director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover didn't have a good word to say about him, Roosevelt
never relied on a single source of information. He knew more about Jack than Hoover or his files would ever hold. Jack might be sick and his record might be checkered, but he was one of those rare souls completely at home in the world. … He was much more interested in the ways Jack didn't conform to type. His love of risk. His analytic brain. His need to argue. His willingness to ditch the pack and go it alone.
He summons Kennedy to a private meeting. Roosevelt wants Jack to be his eyes and ears in Europe. In those days there was no spy network. Roosevelt tells Jack that
"We tried to get a network started once, after the last war when the whole Bolshevik thing blew up, but a horse's ass of the Grand Old School declared that Gentlemen do not read each other's mail, and as a result the spies were sent packing. We're heading into a hurricane now with our ears plugged and our eyes closed."
There is a horrible killer at large who leaves a carved spider on the skin of his victims. There is a woman Jack becomes fascinated, even obsessed, by. These are but two characters who are expertly drawn by the author. We also meet Jack's real younger brothers, Bobby and Teddy, and his beloved sister Kathleen who copes with her Catholic parents' disapproval of her love of an Anglican British man, whom she eventually marries (though not in this book). Had she and her husband not died, they would have become the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. There are wonderful interchanges between Jack and his siblings, and we see that their strong bonds make up for the love they lack from their parents.

Francine Mathews has an excellent 'author's note' at the end of the book telling what got her interested in writing about the young Jack. She mentions a scene from the book which was completely made up but that she thought was 'particularly fun' to imagine. And I think that is the right approach to the whole book. Let it be fun. Let it be 'Jack' before he became 'JFK' with the weight of the world upon his shoulders. Forget the President and the assassination, and enjoy the company of the young man at around the age his grandchildren (Caroline's children) are now.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy at his 1940 graduation from Harvard


16 comments:

  1. I wondered how I didn't know about Jack 1939, but see it is just now out. I'm so glad for your review and know that this is one I will read.

    Side note: A friend lent me her audio book of the Jackie Kennedy//Arthur Schlesinger tapes and I found it to be fascinating to listen to.

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    1. Oh, it is so good.
      Interesting about the tapes. Thanks.

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  2. This sounds very interesting! I like biographical novels. But I am a bit confused about the Jack/John thing; we are talking about one and the same person here, aren't we? Which was his name, Jack or John? Or both? Sorry - this is probably a really stupid question, but I am quite puzzled.

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    1. Over here, at least, Jack is the nickname for John. Though now, a lot of people name their children just Jack.

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    2. Oh, thank you! I never knew... My nephew's name is Jack, and I never knew him by any other name, so I think he really is Jack :-) And every man I know by the name John is always called John.

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    3. I meant to say that it was not a 'stupid' question at all!! I now begin to wonder if that is a US thing- the nickname Jack for John. It is as common here as Bill for William or Joe for Joseph. But as I noted, now most babies are named Jack without bothering with John at all. I haven't read of anyone named John in a long, long time.
      I'm very glad you asked. Thank you.

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  3. This book is new to me but I must read it. I have a fascination of the Kennedy's (as do most people) but love the way this story sounds.....very interesting.

    Have you read 11/22/63 by Stephen King. It was so hard to put down. It's about a man who goes back in time to prevent the assassination. It's a great story.

    So glad to find your blog via Musings!

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    1. Thanks so much for coming by and leaving a note. The book is great.
      I haven't read the King book but my husband did, and really liked it.
      I will be over to visit.

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  4. How interesting to combine fiction and biography in this way! I like the idea, especially since it's all so clearly labeled so you know exactly what you are getting.

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  5. I would be interested in reading this one actually. I'm not enamored by JFK but I'm curious about his childhood and how that formed him.

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    1. In the author's note at the end, she suggests many nonfiction titles about his younger days. This is a wonderful place to begin. I'm sure it will pique your interest.

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  6. The Kennedy family has long intrigued me; how well I remember everyone crying the day he was shot. I remember even more clearly that the days when he was president, people believed in America. They seemed to have hope and confidence, anyway, and the president seemed competent. Ahhh, I digress. I meant to say, "What a wonderful photograph of a charismatic man, and this seems like a fascinating biography of someone we can never learn enough about."

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    1. I saw my father cry two times - when JFK died, and his own father died two years later. Kennedy was huge in my Democratic household. My father was an alternate at the Democratic convention in 1960.
      This is an exceptional book. I'm quite sure you will like it.

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  7. Now this sounds interesting, Nan. I thought I was all tapped out - receptivity-wise - about JFK. But as you say, this is Jack before he became JFK. Though I lived through the assassination (the worst days for those of us of a certain age - worse in some ways than 9/11)I will try and put it out of my mind when I get around to reading this. At the rate I'm going it probably won't be until next year...Ye gads, my reading speed has really hit the skids lately.

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    1. I've always felt so touched by Daniel Patrick Moynihan's quote after JFK died. When Mary McGrory said something about we won't laugh again, DPM said we will laugh again but we will never be young again. I think innocence and belief died in many of us that day.
      I am quite sure you will find Jack 1939 an engaging read.

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Now that I am a grandmother, it seems that I am often late in replying to your most-appreciated comments. But I read them as soon as they come in, and I will write as soon as I can. Please do come back and check. I love these blogging conversations. A little addendum - I've just spent quite a long time catching up with dear notes you left me months ago!! I do hope you can get back to read them. And I'm trying to be much more prompt now!

Also, you may comment on any post, no matter how old, and I will see it.