“When We Were the Kennedys: A Memoir from Mexico, Maine” by Monica Wood; Book Pick of the Year! Let’s Bring This Gr8 Author to the Great Plains Pronto…

August 15, 2012


WASHINGTON, D.C. – By Ivy Harper

Last night, I took a break from blogging and attended a book-signing at Washington’s iconic “Politics & Prose” (P&P) bookstore on Connecticut Avenue.

A friend of mine – Daniele from France – has a friend, Denise, who has a friend who happened to be the P&P featured author.

So, the friend of a friend of a friend turns out to be the enchanting literary lion, Monica Wood, who has written a haunting memoir about her childhood in Mexico, Maine: “When We Were the Kennedys.”

Let me say two things straight off:

First, Monica Wood is one of the best writers in America. Perhaps, the finest.

OMG, as she read her work, I got goosebumps as she transported me back to growing up in Grand Island with Catholic nuns who had our backs When We Were Their Children. Literally.

Okay, I’ll admit it: I still get tears – after all these years – when I think of the selflessness of nuns who taught the eight Harpers at St. Mary’s Elementary, G.I. Central Catholic, and finally, Sister Amata, at Piux X High School in Lincoln, who told me I was “a writer” when I was just sixteen.

Monica’s Irish-Catholic 1950’s & 60’s milieu was Maine; the Harpers was Nebraska but Wood’s writing resonated as if Grand Island was just another ironically-named tiny town up their rocky, craggy coast.

Second, Monica Wood’s P&P actual book-reading itself was the best one I’ve ever attended. She reads like an actress who understands what “reading” before an audience entails.

God bless each and every literary author but seriously, so many read in a monotone, and then don’t know how to control the question-and-answer period afterwards; which often morphs into an excruciating pas de deux where even the most stalwart attendee tries to flee without being noticed. It never works.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the reason some people don’t like aging is that we all know the routine: how back-to-school night goes; how friendships fade; how cocktail parties end; how big-family get-togethers break up; how neighborhood yard sales fizzle; how elections disappoint.

That’s why it’s such a treat at sixty to go to something just to enjoy the company of a new friend – the awesome Daniele – and then find yourself blown away by an event that does not end up being close to what you envisioned. It’s beyond a delight to be surprised by something when you’re a “senior.”

To recap: I’ve been to hundreds of book signings in my life and now I can chronicle: The Best of those Times & the Worst of those Times.

The best: Tuesday night, August 14th, 2012, Monica Wood’s Politics & Prose reading of “When We Were the Kennedys: A Memoir from Mexico, Maine.”

The worst: (I have to end with this because I like order, and now I have “Book-End Book-Signings”)

The year was 2005 and I was visiting our daughter for Dartmouth’s mandatory “Sophomore Summer.” One evening when she was sick, I decided to drop in at a book-signing in the picture-perfect town of Hanover, home of “The Big Green.”

I arrived just minutes before it was to begin and looking back, I did notice that there weren’t many potential book-buyers around. But I’m an optimist and I figured people would dribble in and fairly soon, fill the place up.

Ummmmm. No. No one came. I sat down in the front row and for the next hour, it was: just moi. The horrible part is that there were nearly fifty black folding chairs set up. I kept looking around praying and hoping that some other sweet soul would sit down or…

I knew that I would have to be present the entire time because I could tell that this author was going to “carry on” despite mine being the only warm body in the building.

The staffers – who got wind of the debacle – had scattered. Bunches of book-store employees often will leave their posts, sit down, and pretend that they’re eager readers. But again: that did not happen in Hanover.

Seconds before the designated time, the author rose and walked calmly to the podium. I wanted to scream, “For the love of Daniel Webster, can you please just cancel this thing. For me. Please. I want to get back to my ailing daughter but now – because I really do feel for you – I’m going to have to sit here and be your only audience member. And that’s just weird.”

Apparently, she didn’t agree. She looked at me, smiled, and started speaking. I will never forget that day.

The author – who shall remain nameless – stood bravely behind an imposing walnut lectern and read passages from her book as if forty rapt listeners stared back at her.

I cannot tell you what a burden it is having to be the only person making eye contact, nodding at the appropriate times, advancing knowing sighs, and other simpatico gestures in an effort to be “everybody.” For her sake, I soldiered on as if this lonely book-signing was even remotely in the range of “normal.” Oh, and of course, I had to ask every single question after she ended the reading part. She answered them all with the composure of the trooper she was.

One endearing memory: the author’s husband showed up and ever-so-gently, began whisking away folding chairs until at the very end, there was just me, alone in my seat, in front of a writer who stayed the course.

But back to the best book-signing: I urge all of my friends, family, and fellow Nebraskans to buy Monica Wood’s book and prepare to be amazed by a wordsmith who will make you weep. And laugh. And think. And remember: the meaning of family, love, and place.

5 Comments on ““When We Were the Kennedys: A Memoir from Mexico, Maine” by Monica Wood; Book Pick of the Year! Let’s Bring This Gr8 Author to the Great Plains Pronto…”

  1. Dan Abbott Says:

    I was also at that reading, and as much as this entry sounds a little over-the-top, I have to agree with Ivy that Monica Wood is the best at reading her own work that I’ve ever encountered…and at least one of the best contemporary writers in the U.S.


    • iharperse Says:

      Dan, just curious. How did you come by my blog?


      • Dan Abbott Says:

        I am the very opinionated husband of Monica Wood, and I met you after the reading where we high-fived about our mutual judgement that she is the best author/reader alive. (Dylan Thomas might have been better, but I never heard him). I looked up your blog and found this and unabashedly commented. I suppose I should have disclosed my rather close relationship with the subject, but I’ve always felt that I was entitled to my own opinion, even if I was there as her “media expert.”

        Seriously Ivy, the reading was so much fun, and my favorite part was watching your happy surprise at how good it was, and sharing those high fives with you. You’re a charmer.

  2. randy lukasiewicz Says:

    cowa bunga…….Ivy, what an inviting and engaging commentary you gave. Makes me want to go right out and buy a copy of Monica’s book, especially since I can relate to that era and those places in Nebraska. Thank
    s and be well.


  3. Educator Says:

    To read about nuns is so timely, given the recent “Nuns on the Bus” tour and the meeting in St. Louis of the LCWR.

    One of my favorite nun memories also began on a bus! The St. Joseph and Dominican nuns who ran our high school in Grand Island, chartered a bus to Omaha so we could all watch Sound of Music at the Dundee Theater. I can still recall the first-time magic of seeing Sister Maria on the screen, running and singing in the mountains.

    Then our own nuns who seemed never to rest came back and double-cast this Oscar-winning, longtime Broadway-running musical. They made sure that every single student who wanted a part was assigned one, and they became a collective whirlwind of energy teaching us to sing, dance, act, build sets, gather props, sew costumes, oh, and along the way, love your neighbor.

    Another memory I appreciated more fully a few years later. It was a few days after I had graduated, and I came back to the school for some reason. There was Sister Paulette, high on a ladder in her office, hand scheduling the new modular program our school was initiating. Her office wall was set up like a giant Jeopardy board with manilla folders and magic marker labels. Even then I remember thinking, “School has just gotten out, sister. Go back to the convent and relax.”

    I would think of her fondly many Junes later, ready to collapse after my own year of teaching. And I would marvel at how she put that schedule together without the help of computers!

    In conclusion, a full disclosure along the lines of Dan Abbott. I am Ivy’s sister and am delighted at her new blog. And of course, I can’t wait to read Monica Wood’s memoir.


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