Fifty years ago a president was violently assassinated. John F. Kennedy’s place in history is mostly emblematic: baby-boomers remember his ease and charm and clever repartee with the White House press corps; they remember the breath of fresh air that blew through the White House as Jackie embarked on her restoration project. Most of all, they remember where they were when he was killed. Two new books for younger readers attempt to capture the shock and horror of that day, but to get a sense of the man let’s start with a biography:
By focusing on his childhood and school years, the author humanizes a legend. This biography pulls together the early influences that shaped JFK’s character: a demanding (though fiercely involved) father, a distant, distracted mother, intense and sometimes violent rivalry with his older brother, chronic ill health, tight-knit siblings, wealth and privilege. Some of those elements a young reader can relate to. The treatment is not sugar-coated: parental failings get their due though the author pulls back from some of the worst charges about Kennedy Senior (not his philandering ways, though). A survey of JFK’s life after graduation from high school notes certain character flaw (“like his father, Jack was not always a faithful husband”–an understatement) but grants full due to his achievements and gifts.
- Worldview/moral value: N/A (no discernable worldview)
- Literary value: 3.5 (out of 5)
The President Has Been Shot! the Assassination of John F. Kennedy. By James Swanson. Scholastic, 2013, 336 pages including index and bibliography. Age/interest level: 12-up.
The author’s first best-seller, Manhunt: the 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer, established a winning formula: a day-by-day, even minute-by-minute, account of one of the most dramatic events in history. Manhunt was published in both an adult and YA version, and along the same lines, The President Has Been Shot! is the juvenile version of the author’s End of Days. It’s divided into two main sections: an overview of Kennedy’s life, covering his early years, the 1960 election and inauguration, and important events of his presidency (the Bay of Pigs invasion and Cuban Missile Crisis, the Space Race, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the beginning of the Civil Rights struggle, and “the Kennedy Mystique”). Part Two begins the countdown to assassination and its aftermath, recounted in a separate chapter for each day, from “Thursday, November 21” to “Monday, November 25.”
The first section may drag for a reader who’s not all that into history, especially if he has little or no context to relate to. But it’s a great opportunity for a “living history” lesson: before cracking the pages of the book, ask a grandparent where he or she was when the news first broke of the assassination, and what they recall of Kennedy as a president and as a man. Or skim through the book with an older relative and discuss the pictures, many of which will prompt “I remember” reveries.
The second section will probably need no context to draw the reader. Events during those few days followed hard on each other like a stampede: a district judge rounded up to administer the oath of office to the new president on Air Force One; a frenzied search for the killer, in which a local police officer was killed; Mrs. Kennedy in a bloodstained suit holding hands with her brother-in-law; the name “Lee Harvey Oswald” hardly set in the American consciousness before he himself was shot during a Sunday morning prison transfer; the state funeral attended by viewers all over the world. An extensive bibliography and index follow for the reader who would like to know more.
- Worldview/moral value: N/A
- Literary value: 4
Bill O’Reilly has carved out a successful second career chronicling notable deaths: Killing Lincoln and Killing Jesus are two of his recent best-sellers. Here he brings his investigative-reporting skills to bear on an event he’s old enough to remember. In the Introduction he writes of hearing the news during religion class at Charminade High, a Catholic boy’s school where girls and sports were much more interesting topics of conversation than politics. But, like everybody else in the world, young Bill was riveted. His account is divided in four parts: “The Making of a Hero,” “The Making of a Leader,” “Dallas Texas—November 1963,” and “The Making of a Legend.” This organization, combined with his reporter’s sense of who-what-when-where, creates a framework that’s easier to get into than Swanson’s straightforward history approach. The present-tense narration also lends a sense of immediacy and dash. The illustrations are particularly helpful, such as maps alongside discussions of geopolitical issues and a list of participating characters, accompanied by photos, just after the introduction.
On the down side, the opening sections parallel Kennedy’s life with Oswald’s, jumping around in time and space to an extent that can be confusing. The contrast can’t be denied, but given the huge gap in the age and achievements of these two men, Swanson wisely chooses to not introduce Oswald until the action moves to Dallas. Also, O’Reilly is a little fuzzy on Oswald’s connections and lends some credence to a shadowy person who may have worked closely with him—and perhaps even fired a fourth shot from the grassy knoll?
That brings up the evergreen subject of conspiracy, which Swanson handles better, I think, than O’Reilly. In a word, he rejects all conspiracy theories, and gives his reasons why. I’m inclined to agree with him, for the simple reason that it’s almost impossible to hide secrets of this magnitude; certainly not for fifty years.
- Worldview/literary value: (N/A)
- Literary value: 3.75
By the way, I remember. I was thirteen years old at the time and more tuned in to the event than most kids my age because it was my town the President was visiting. I had watched his arrival on our old black and white TV that morning, completely absorbed by the local reporters’ description of Mrs. Kennedy’s pink suit. (“That’s as full a description of a lady’s outfit as I’m ever likely to give,” he said, in an animated voice. Everyone was excited.) The shots were fired less than ten miles away from me; not that I heard them, of course. I got the news like everybody else, over the radio. My mother and grandparents were out shopping; they came home in tears. It was my little sister’s ninth birthday, and she was irked—the party that evening went on as planned, but with mood and conversation completely highjacked. At least she got her presents, and history went on.
On that same day, across the Atlantic, two prominent authors also breathed their last. Each rated a few inches of newsprint far from Page One: Aldous Huxley and C. S. Lewis. Of those three men who died that day, I can guess which one will have the longest-lasting influence.