The First Kennedys: The Humble Roots of an American Dynasty

Mariner: Houghton Harcourt. Feb. 2022. 352p. ISBN 9780358437697. $28. BIOG
Journalist Thompson (Kickflip Boys) may surprise both general readers and historians with a Kennedy book based on newly accessible materials and differently focused on the family’s first members in the United States: John F. Kennedy Jr.’s Irish immigrant paternal great grandparents. Benefiting from the papers in the Kennedy Library of P. J. Kennedy (the only surviving son of Bridget Murphy Kennedy and her husband Patrick) as well as digital ancestry databases, this winsomely written book employs cultural context, empathy, multiple viewpoints, and careful evaluation of sources. Central are the entrepreneurial, too-soon widowed, resilient matriarch Bridget and her equally risk-taking youngest child P. J. With more street than book smarts, he went from working in shops and saloons to holding local elected office, navigating fluctuating Prohibition laws, and overcoming antipathy to his ethnicity and religion. Thompson notes that Catholics protested hegemonic American Protestant-dominated schools, often countering with their own. As for the Fitzgerald family, the author concentrates on “Honey Fitz” (JFK Jr.’s maternal grandfather, the mayor of Boston) and culminates with the marriage of JFK Jr.’s parents, Joseph Patrick Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald.
VERDICT This is both an absorbing family story and a saga of the Irish diaspora in Boston, a city that eventually accepted the Kennedys and allowed the ambitious family to achieve versions of the American dream before fate intervened.
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