Having a book reviewed in The New Yorker is not something that never happens for Maine authors. With the likes of Stephen King and Richard Ford calling Maine home at least part of the year it is not as if we never have great writers amongst us. That said, with the release late last year of When We Were The Kennedy’s, Monica Wood has produced a book that has, for very good reason, received strong reviews in publications all across the country.
Subtitled ” A Memoir of Mexico Maine ” Wood tells the story of her childhood and how it all changed around the dividing line of 1963. History tells us that 1963 was a dividing line for almost all Americans but, while America was riven by the death of the President, Wood’s childhood, she was nine in 1963, is torn open in the spring of that year when her father drops dead on his way to work.
Except for her reminisces we never really get to the know the full character of her father. His loss however will shape her future. The glimpses we do see of him; her memories of his smiling good nature, his gentle contentment with his lot in life, and his fond memories of his boyhood home on Prince Edward Island, provide a window into a steady man providing a steady life for his family. Her depiction of him getting up and going to work each day, lunch-pail in hand, will give many of us, I am sure, a model of a memory that many in my age group can certainly relate to. My father too was a simple man with a large family that never in my life did I hear complain. He was the salt of the earth, not perfect, but a man with responsibilities he welcomed and honored. This is what we feel about the author’s father as we learn about his premature death.
Still, to be a widow in 1963 with three young daughters, one of them mentally challenged enough that she will never get past the second grade, is no easy thing. Monica’s mother is devastated by the death of her husband. Over the course of the next year Monica’s mother will struggle, slowly gaining strength, until she finds a special kind of solace with the kinship she feels with the President’s widow just six months later.
Longing for father figures, her Uncle, her Mother’s younger brother, provides one until he is stricken with an alcohol induced nervous breakdown. Stronger in that stressful time for her is the father of her best friend. Mr. Vailencourt worked at the mill with her father and when he takes his daughters and Monica for ice cream and says ” vanilla for my three girls” she feels both what she has been missing and did not know she needed. The author speaks of how nice this whole family was to her, but realizes from her adult perspective that she, as a young fatherless girl, simply broke her friend’s fathers heart.
In 1963 Mexico, Maine is dominated by The Oxford, a paper mill that in the early sixties was producing magazine print that dominated the market. This was a time where both labor and management worked together, feeling good both about what they accomplished and what they had. It would soon end. My own sister’s husband grew up in a neighboring town at about the same time. His father and family members worked at that same mill. It is an experience many in Maine and many across towns all over the country can understand. A mill or a business that dominates a town can feel like the living breathing heart, until one day when, suddenly or after a long slow death, it stops beating.
Little did young Monica know that this was the high point in her town’s history. As the mill over the next fifty years went through owner after owner, downsizing all the while, Mexico, like all the towns along the Androscoggin, shrunk with each census. It is the story of Maine, the story of all the manufacturing cities of the Northeast and Midwest.
For that reason, that feeling of connectedness to the author and the time and place, this book succeeds. For the same reason, however, a person with different life experiences might not enjoy the book so much. For me though, growing up in the same state, if a few years later than the time period in the book, it was very interesting. When one considers all the positive reviews it seems that note of recognition has struck home for a large group of people, many well beyond the protected borders of Maine.
Wood’s writing is not perfect, certainly not flowery, but in an auto-biography it is not necessarily noticed. Indeed some of her phrase turning is like listening to my own uncles and aunts from my youth. For me that is one of the strongest joys of the book. I do suspect that her actual fiction, books she has published in the past and certainly will in the future, would be much more along the lines of many popular contemporary female authors that we are all familiar with, and thus, would not be as interesting to me.
This book though, if only as a document of a time and place, has real value. When one considers the strength of the actual story, how easy it is to connect with the characters, it is easy to see why this book has struck such a chord with readers. Anybody who grew up in small town America in that period from the fifties to the mid seventies will relate to this book, those that did not, that might wonder what it might have been like, will find this an excellent place to find out.