Friday, December 14, 2012

Favorite Reads 2012: A Fascinating Historical "What If"

One of my favorite reads of 2012 was a novel based on a fictionalized John F Kennedy being sent on a secret spy mission by FDR, just as Hitler's forces were spreading over the map of Europe like a dark, spilled potion.

Jack 1939 by Francine Mathews hooked me right from the beginning. I was immediately intrigued by the notion of Harvard senior JFK setting off on a "research" trip around Europe. That alone would have been fascinating; and, indeed, he did actually travel to all the places described in the novel at those times. But even more fascinating was the idea of FDR summoning the young, sickly student to his private train coach deep beneath the Waldorf Astoria Hotel and confiding to him that he could not trust anyone around him, particularly FBI Director J Edgar Hoover. Now, the United States had no real secret service in 1939. "Spies" were often diplomats and trusted citizens living abroad. It's hard to imagine such a situation living in today's high tech surveillance world.

FDR had decided to use JFK's tour of Europe, gathering historical information for his senior thesis, as a convenient cover to gather intelligence on Hitler's plan to buy off American presidential candidates in order to unseat FDR, insuring America's neutrality. He mentions suitcases full of cash coming into the country. The fact that young Jack was considered a wild, undisciplined, and completely inexperienced "weak link" in the Kennedy clan does not seem to concern FDR at all. His confidence convinces Jack to give it a try. There is no way for him to anticipate the perilous situations in which he will find himself traveling through European countries in the throes of being marched upon by the Nazis. He encounters helpers along the way and even has to learn to send and receive messages in code.

I got a whole new perspective on JFK from this book. Even though it is fiction, it is clear that the author did quite a bit of research on him and his family. I knew that he had been ill much of his life, but had no idea how baffled doctors were as to what repeatedly nearly killed him. He was eventually diagnosed with a hormonal deficiency, but the treatment in 1939 was almost as horrific as the attacks he suffered. I knew that he had lived in the shadow of his brother Joe, who was the heir apparent to the Kennedy fortune and who carried the hopes of patriarch Joseph P Kennedy for ultimate political power, but did not fully realize that Jack was considered almost a throwaway by his father. But in the world of fiction, what Jack uncovers during his harrowing trip will change that dynamic forever.

Of course, there are vivid descriptions of other members of the Kennedy clan. The relationships among the older siblings, and the very young Teddy, belonging to another generation, almost. There is romance, of course: the mysterious Diana whose allegiances are never quite certain. And murder: many of them! Carried out by a Nazi assassin whose mark is a spider carved into the victim.

Hooked yet? This genre is not one I usually am drawn to; the subject of JFK is what attracted me. It sparks a lot of speculation about what historical secrets may still be out there, and how some things in the power struggle of politics never change.

Jack 1939 may be found in the "new" section at the library.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all our wonderful patrons!

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