If you’re my age or older, you remember John F. Kennedy’s funeral. And, I grew up reading about the Kennedys and watching them on television. My late husband, Jim, was a Kennedy fanatic, reading everything he could get his hands on about Kennedy, his family, his administration, his assassination. I’m giving Francine Mathews’ novel, Jack 1939, the greatest compliment I can. Jim would have loved this book.
Jack Kennedy actually spent part of his twenty-second year, 1939, crisscrossing Europe. Mathews used much of that itinerary as the basis for this riveting story of intrigue. What if Jack Kennedy was actually on a secret mission for President Franklin Roosevelt? In 1939, Europe was on the verge of war. FDR didn’t trust Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement, and he was worried about what Hitler was going to do. Roosevelt was thinking of running for a third term, but there was a great deal of opposition to war, and opposition to Roosevelt. And, there was $150 million coming into the country from Germany as Hitler hoped to buy the election for someone who would keep the U.S. out of the war. Who better to send to Europe to find out the Nazis plans than Joseph Kennedy’s son? Ambassador Kennedy was a known isolationist, a friend of Chamberlain’s, and interested in the Presidency himself. Who would suspect Kennedy’s second son, the black sheep of the family?
Mathews brings Jack Kennedy vividly to life in this novel. She doesn’t hide his illnesses, but uses it to help define him. Jack doesn’t think he’ll live a long life, but he’s determined to live it fully, whether he’s dating beautiful women, traveling the world, or working in secret for his president. FDR saw Jack’s jauntiness, his inveterate curiosity. He was “One of those rare souls completely at home in the world.” He saw he loved risk, had a need to argue, had an analytic brain, and he was willing to go it alone, all qualities FDR needed. He saw Jack Kennedy as a survivor.
This book is fascinating on so many levels. Mathews mixes real people and events with fiction so skillfully that it’s hard to separate fact and fiction. I found myself looking up people to learn if they were real. Kennedy finds himself in dangerous company, mixing with German killers, not knowing who to trust as he searches for answers for FDR He’s not even sure he can trust his own father.. At home in the White House, FDR already knows he can’t completely trust J. Edgar Hoover. The interactions between the two run throughout this book, two powerful men looking to find ways to manipulate the other.
Anyone with a knowledge of history will find the foreshadowing in this book fascinating. When you know about the FDR’s presidency, Hoover’s secret files, the events that led up to World War II, and Jack Kennedy’s future life, the book becomes that much more interesting. It’s a riveting novel of espionage, hard to put down. It’s a suspenseful novel filled with real people and fictional what ifs. Even when you know Jack Kennedy’s future, the dangerous situations make you hold your breath at times. Francine Mathews’ Jack 1939 is so realistic that it’s not hard to believe that Jack Kennedy could have been on a special assignment in that year preceding the war.
As I said, the best compliment I could give this book is that Jim would have loved it. Francine Mathews makes the reader believe that Jack Kennedy could have been a spy for FDR. Fact and fiction is perfectly interwoven in this story of intrigue and romance, Jack 1939.
Francine Mathews’ website is www.FrancineMathews.com
Jack 1939 by Francine Mathews. Riverhead Books. 2012. ISBN 9781594487194 (hardcover), 368p.