Sunday, February 27, 2022

Neal Thompson's "The First Kennedys"

Neal Thompson is a journalist and the author of several highly acclaimed books, including A Curious Man, Driving with the Devil, and the fatherhood-and-skateboarding memoir Kickflip Boys. He has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, Esquire, Outside,, and more and has taught creative nonfiction at Hugo House and the Great Smokies Writing Program. He lives in Seattle with his family.

Thompson applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The First Kennedys: The Humble Roots of an American Dynasty, and reported the following:
This page happens to fall nicely on the opening paragraphs of chapter 9, entitled “Bridget the Widow.” It’s not giving away too much to reveal that Bridget Murphy Kennedy (JFK’s great-grandmother), an Irish immigrant maid in the slums of East Boston, will soon lose her husband. But in a hint at the many ups and downs of the book, and of the Kennedy family's first decades in an unwelcoming America, the chapter opens with a glimmer of hope and promise: “In the small bedroom of their chilly Liverpool Street apartment, with newspapers and old stockings stuffed into window cracks to ward off winter’s chill, with her sister and likely a midwife by her side, Bridget gave birth to her fifth child, her second son, who was destined to be raised and spoiled by three older sisters.” Though the second paragraph on this page shows us P.J. Kennedy being baptized at his local (and newly built) church, the boy will grow up fatherless: his father, Patrick, dies later that year, on Nov. 22, 1858. P.J. is then raised and deeply influenced by his tenacious mother, Bridget, who after the Civil War opens her own grocery shop — the rare single-female shop owner in the neighborhood. Later, she’ll loan P.J. some money to help him open his first saloon, the start of a lucrative liquor-selling career that will provide the launching pad and connections to initiate his influential (and largely overlooked) political career. In this case, page 99 of The First Kennedys “passes” the test — it neatly gives readers a sense of place and a tight glimpse into the difficult lives of the poor immigrant Kennedys during their early years of struggling to make it in their adopted homeland. Ideally, someone who picks up the book and flips to page 99 might ask themselves: I wonder what happens next to Bridget Kennedy and her only son, P.J.?
Visit Neal Thompson's website.

--Marshal Zeringue