Jack 1939 by Francine Mathews
Jack 1939 by Francine Mathews I am just old enough to remember the day that John “Jack” Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated on 22 November 1963. It was an event that shocked the world and turned the man into a mythical character, the subject of hundreds of books and much speculation. We are all familiar with the images of Jack and Jackie, of JFK and Marilyn Monroe, and on and on.
So, I was intrigued when I came across Jack 1939, a novel by Francine Mathews. This is the year when an almost 22-year-old John F. Kennedy “Jack” was working on his Harvard thesis. His father, Joe Kennedy, was the American Ambassador in London, Franklin Roosevelt was President of the United States, and J Edgar Hoover was the head of the FBI. All of these men are the main characters in what becomes, essentially, an espionage thriller.
We meet Jack in a hospital ward; he is very ill, thin and lethargic. His illness baffles his doctors and there is fear that there may not be a cure. A radical and rather strange treatment is attempted and seems to have a positive affect. Released from the hospital Jack is summoned to meet with the President, offered a commission that must remain a secret even, perhaps especially, from his own father.
It is in Europe that Jack will begin his work for the President. He sails for England, and the home of his parents and siblings. I will admit that I know little about the lives of the Kennedy family apart from the events that got into the newspapers over the past 50 years or so. I knew nothing about the life of the Kennedy family in the years before, and during, the Second World War. We all know the Americans were late in coming into the war, and that Chamberlain was blind by intention or ignorance about what was really going on in Europe just prior to the invasion of Poland. I learned a lot about those years from this novel.
Francine Mathews stresses that Jack 1939 is a novel, a work of fiction, but it is compelling enough, as a novel, that after reading this book I was left very curious about what Jack Kennedy was really doing at that time and how close to truth this novel might come. Of course we know that JFK, as he came to be known, did not die of a rare disorder, but I discovered by doing a little research that he did indeed have a rare disease as a young man – in fact was plagued by it all of his life. His doctor later said that after he was finally diagnosed with Addison’s Disease and treated, he was in the best health he had ever been at the time of his assassination.
There is of course a woman involved in the novel, perhaps the only woman the fictional Jack would truly love. Jack is shown to be a man who became as famous a womanizer as his father, if one is to believe the portrait painted of that rather unappealing man. Joe Kennedy was not an easy father. Jack, as the second son, had it easy compared to Joe Jr. who was being groomed for the future presidency by his ambitious father. And there appears to have been no love lost between the parents – Rose, a mother who ignored her children as much as possible, often away for months at a time.
After reading Jack 1939 I thought that if John F Kennedy was even slightly as fascinating in real life as he is in fiction, I’d like to read more about the man and the truth about his life during the Second World War and after.