When We Were the Kennedys.  A Memoir from Mexico, Maine, by Monica Wood

“The bulk of this story,” novelist Monica Wood writes in her author’s note, “”¦results from my having been an observant child living in a vibrant place and time.”

The place is Mexico, Maine, in the western mountains, and the time is 1963. That year, the Wood family and America suffered a profound loss, but the deft manner in which the author makes the connection between the personal and the national is only a part of the overall glory of this memoir.

Through Wood’s immaculate and engaging prose, the reader becomes a part of the neighborhood “block” in this bustling industrial town and comes to know, and love, her Irish Catholic family: father Albert, who works at the Oxford Paper Company across the bridge in Rumford; mother Margaret and her priest brother, Father Bob (called “Fath” by his nieces); and five children ranging in age from 8 to 26. The four daughters are the main characters: Anne, 21, a schoolteacher; Betty, 11, who is mentally disabled; the author, 9, called “Monnie,” who aspires to write Nancy Drew stories; and Cathy, the youngest, 8, a dutiful child who goes to school the day she loses her father.

When Mr. Wood drops dead one morning on his way to the mill, the family undergoes a wrenching transformation. The author’s description of the death and its aftermath represents the beating heart of the book. The interactions of the daughters, the dynamics of the family and its community in the wake of the tragedy are recounted with a blend of sweet grief and insight that recalls such classic stories of growing up as Jean Stafford’s The Mountain Lion.   

When President Kennedy is assassinated later that year, there are two widows in America: Jackie and Margaret. In a recent interview, Wood noted how she discovered that widows sometimes experience a sense of shame over their condition, something she witnessed as her mother went into a tailspin after her husband’s death. Jackie Kennedy’s stoic dealing with widowhood allowed the author’s mother to regain herself and move the family forward.  

Going back through the book, the stars penciled in the margin mark dozens of this reader’s favorite spots. Here is a handful: a description of the Wood family’s landlords, the Norkuses, a Lithuanian family, and their love of home and garden; a trip to Reid State Park with Father Bob; the accounts of the nuns’ teaching; the second family Monica finds in the Vallaincourts; the sewing of shoes with another Mexico family, the Gagnons.

And this riff on religion: Wherever you fit into this plan—giving Communion or receiving Communion; top of the class or mentally retarded; working or on strike; whole and happy or hacked to pieces by grief—you fit.

The central protagonist of this memoir is the Oxford, “that boiling hulk on the riverbank, the great equalizer that took our fathers from us every day and eight hours later gave them back, in an unceasing loop of shift work.”

The mill is a colossus that rules the lives of all residing within the radius of its malodorous exhalations. Here and there Wood references the mill’s poisonous impact on the air and water — and the workers — but she is no Karen Silkwood. Hers is a nuanced relationship, a mix of fear and respect for the creator of “some desperate-handsome paper,” as her father might say.     

When We Were the Kennedys won the May Sarton Memoir Award in March. Other honors are sure to follow, for this book is a gem and will be read again and again.   

Carl Little lives on Mount Desert Island. His most recent book is Nature and Culture: The Art of Joel Babb (University Press of New England).