Saturday, March 28, 2009

Wealth, Power and Tragedy: Behind the (fictional) Scenes with the Kennedys

One of the books I took with me on vacation was Laurie Graham's wonderful
The Importance of Being Kennedy. Because of it, she's made my favorite authors list, as observant readers may have noticed already.

Taking bags and bags of books on vacation is somewhat of a family tradition of mine. When I was growing up, there was a wonderful campground on the Canadian side of Lake Erie that we went to every summer. We'd pack our swimsuits, our beach towels, our sand toys and our books. I still remember one summer, my mom had a book called The Kennedy Women. When I asked her how it was, she said "Don't marry a Kennedy when you grow up."

Graham's behind-the-scenes fictionalized version of the early lives of the nine Kennedy brothers and sisters adds another voice to that particular chorus. Always believing their children were marked for greatness, Joe Sr. and Rose pushed them relentlessly, isolated them socially, and never allowed even a momentary lapse in the high standards they set. You can imagine the difficulties this would have meant for a child with an iconoclastic bent, or worse, one who did not have the capabilities to meet these standards. The book focuses mostly on two like this.

Those who pick up this book to learn fictional nanny Nora Brennan's take on the more famous brothers, Jack, Bobby and Teddy, will be disappointed. They're in there, all right, but they're minor characters. Nora left Ireland as a young woman to seek a life in America with more options than marrying a farmer and having lots of babies. She got a job as a nanny with the Kennedy family, and there was lots of work to do. The two children that especially captured Nora's heart were Rosemarie and Kathleen. I've never really read much about the Kennedy family -- like the royals in England, it's sort of the story every American just knows -- but I was always under the impression that Rose Kennedy was well-liked. It was surprising to me that Nora reserved a great deal of vitriol for her, painting her as an overbearing cheapskate with a cold heart, who only loved based on potential.

I didn't know much at all about the early lives of the Kennedy children, so it interested me to know exactly how many there were, and where the family got their money and fame. I'd always viewed Joe Sr. as a notorious womanizer with some questionable business associations, but Nora (and Graham) paint a surprisingly forgiving picture of him. He's largely absent, though, and a catalyst to the story. Maybe that's how the children primarily experienced him: the man who came around once in a while and handed out candy and told them how proud he was of them and how they were shaping up to be winners already, then whisked them away to Hollywood or to England.

The story really picks up when the family moves abroad. Joe Kennedy had been given the post of Ambassador to England, and the family went along. This is also where Nora begins to get a story of her own, as she meets a man who works at the country house of a duke in the course of chaperoning the energetic Kick (Kathleen). I liked this aspect of the book. It made the story more believable. It's a common device in historical fiction, to invent a character that was privy to the events the author wants to relate. It's less common to see them as characters with lives and desires of their own, rather than human camcorders switched on at an opportune time.

World War II keeps coming up in my reading lately, and I may do a Books of a Feather on it sometime soon. Graham captures much of the chaos, the fear and excitement existing simultaneously, and the feeling that one could do whatever one wanted to do because soon it wouldn't matter anyway. Some of the Kennedys get caught up in these feelings. Others, particularly the parents, do not. This is where the title of the novel really starts to take force. The kids were raised with certain beliefs about what Kennedys do and do not do. As they blossom into adulthood, the beliefs start to conflict with their personal desires and (in the case of Rosemarie) their own capabilities. At the start of the novel, Nora's nephew explains that Nora never believed in "the Kennedy curse," that Joe and Rose brought the calamities upon their kids with the attitudes they raised them with. In some cases, proving their Kennedyness led to disaster, other times to glory, and in the case of Joe Jr., both simultaneously. If you're interested in the Kennedy family or in World War II, this book is a good read, and offers a bit of a different perspective.

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