Sunday with Zin: Non-Fiction: Monica Wood, When We Were The Kennedys (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012)

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.

Hello I am Zin! On July 25, 2012, Monica Wood came to the Portland Public Library to present a Brown Bag Lecture about her just-published memoir about life in Mexico, Maine! She lives in Portland now.

This book is not about the Kennedys at all, except in a metaphor. The title is a play on We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates, I suppose, but it is a memoir about Monica and her Catholic blue collar family in a mill town in the 60s. When she is 9, her father dies, and life gets quite scary and Mom goes into a depression! Then a few months later President Kennedy is assassinated, and Monica felt her mother drew on the strength of that widow and that family – even though there were so many differences between them, they were from completely different worlds, but they had this similarity of a Catholic family who lost a husband and father – to pull them together, gather strength, and cope.

It took years for me to see how loss can tighten your grip on the things still possible to hold.

Monica Wood is primarily a fiction writer; she has not included autobiographical material in her stories or novels (I have been reading her story collection, Ernie’s Ark, and I think there is an autobiographical family in one of them!), and she never really thought about writing a memoir! This book started as a short piece for the nonfiction anthology A Place Called Maine; the editor wanted something from interior and industrial Maine, which wasn’t as covered as the coast or the farmlands. That became the prologue, which you can read, along with Chapter 1, on her website! She put it away while she was working on her story collection Ernie’s Ark (maybe it was the timing that had her shade the stories with some autobiographicality) but at a low period went back to it as a comfort and started adding to it as a full-length memoir!

Mexico, Maine was named in support of the Mexican revolutionaries fighting for independence from Spain in the early nineteenth century! But she never met any Mexicans there! There were French Canadians, Lithuanians, Russians, Italians, and others, though, descendants of immigrants who came to work there in the 19th century! The Mill (originally owned by Oxford, now owned by NewPage) in Rumford, which underwent the kind of stresses you would expect a paper mill to have undergone over the past century, was her first metaphor and so she knew it would have to be a major character in the book!

She is very happy with the cover! She gave the publisher – Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, a different publisher than she used for her fiction – some photographs. There were some from a family trip to Niagara Falls, taken by her uncle, the Father Bob of the story (he is a priest, and he was part of the inspiration for a character in her novel Any Bitter Thing). They made them the cover! She especially likes that they moved her older sister Anne to a position so it looks like she is supporting all the kids on her shoulders! She was puzzled by the back cover, which is plaid – there is nothing about plaid in the book! But they told her it is the Prince Edward Island tartan – and that is where her father emigrated from! She was very happy to learn that, and to see it on the book!

She found the memoir much easier, and quicker, to write than a novel! But still it was hard, because all writing is hard! The first draft was straight narrative, because she was worried about “violating the truth.” But her younger sister said, “Shove us aside and make yourself a character!” So she rewrote it with scenes and dialogue and an eye towards weaving threads through the whole text, and her sister said, “Now it is true!” She talked to most of the people in the book, the ones who are still alive, to make sure her recollection was accurate and to show them how they were being portrayed, and she found it warmly received all around! No one asked for any changes, she felt her sisters accepted her as an artist!

She was very pleased by a review that appeared on the online New Yorker blog Page-Turner (the same one that includes all the author interviews from their fiction)!

I found her to be a very polished and engaging speaker! Her sister was in the audience with us so it was fun to see her too!

I am not going to read this book; it just is not the sort of thing I want to read at this point, though of course that may change, but I am very happy to know about it! And I do like her writing! So now I have checked out her short story collection, Ernie’s Ark, from the library, and I am reading it and will post about it next time!

5 responses to “Sunday with Zin: Non-Fiction: Monica Wood, When We Were The Kennedys (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012)

  1. Pingback: Sunday with Zin: Monica Wood: Ernie’s Ark – Ballantine Books, 2002 « A Just Recompense

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