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Jack 1939: Book Review

July 29, 2012

Jack 1939
Florence Mathews
Riverhead Books, 361 pages


The alternate history premise of this novel intrigued me. In 1939, President Roosevelt recruits a young Jack Kennedy as a spy, to travel through Europe, using both the Kennedy family name and his thesis research as a cover for gathering intelligence about Hitler’s plans and the political climate in Europe. Jack is a sickly young man, in and out of the hospital with a mysterious disease that has made him need to drop out of various schools. He’s also a voracious and thoughtful reader, devouring political theory while convalescing, and that, as much as his family name, catches Roosevelt’s attention. As Jack travels across Europe, sending coded messages back home, the story unfolds slowly. It’s more a deep character study, of Jack’s interior life, his relationships with his family, and the possibilities of political shifts and discoveries, trafficking in information.

I have only read one novel by John LeCarre, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. I keep meaning to read more. Dad’s a fan. But from what I read, I remember the same sense of tension between literary prose and driving the plot forward. The tension between writing craft and the tension of dangerous events might have been why I felt that the novel was moving more slowly than I initially expected. I was kind of hoping for JFK as James Bond. I need to remember that I’ve got spying confused with adventure story, half the time, when really a spy story is often much more about the subtleties. This novel was very cerebral, a character study as well as a story about political maneuvering and information. Also, using JFK as a central character led to some turns of phrase bordering on hero worship, (protagonist-worship?) which also played havoc with the pacing.

I think I shouldn’t have read this in the summer, when I’m looking for light, vacation reading. It might have suffered from my timing and overall mindset.

Sometimes, historical fiction serves to highlight how little I know about history or historical figures. I know only the basics about JFK and the Kennedy family, and next to nothing about JFK’s early life. I like to think I’ve read a fair amount about World War II, the battles, rationing, bomb shelters and the blitz. Some talk about codes and information sounded familiar, and there were certainly any number of familiar names: President Roosevelt, the members of the Kennedy family, J. Edgar Hoover. But, I found myself feeling sheepish for the gaps in my own knowledge that led to some trouble negotiating between fact and fiction.
No idea whether JFK was sickly as a kid. No idea whether he traveled in Europe in 1939. The author’s note lists the books she used for research. So, I suppose I could begin there, but I did want more of a summary.

It sounded plausible, for the most part, and made for an interesting premise for a novel.

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