Two years ago I met Monica Wood in Portland’s Longfellow’s Cemetery. We were both bird watching. I was thrilled to meet one of my favorite novelists and tell her how much I enjoyed all four of her novels.
Of course, I inquired as to when I could expect novel number five, and was disappointed to hear that instead of a novel, she was working on a memoir of growing up in Mexico, Maine. I couldn’t imagine a memoir about this Maine mill town that would be as compelling as one of Monica’s novels. Or even interesting.
Wow, was I ever wrong! A few weeks ago I received When We Were the Kennedys, Monica Wood’s extraordinary, powerful, and moving memoir of her close Irish Catholic immigrant family of father, mother, son, and four daughters. The book is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and goes on sale this week.
Monica’s Dad dropped dead on his way to work at the Oxford Paper Company, or as they called it, “The Oxford,” the mill that dominated Rumford and Mexico as the principle employer in the 1960s. Monica was nine years old. And this is where her memoir begins.
This heart-wrenching, emotional, sometimes funny, oftentimes astonishing, and always compelling story is far better than the best novel – and not just because it’s a true story. It is a powerful story, a story that may be familiar to those who grew up in one-mill Maine towns, but not as well known to the rest of us.
You will find yourself pausing, rereading entire paragraphs, and thinking about what you’ve read – perhaps stirring memories of your own Mexico.
Three years after Monica’s Dad died, I would ride into Mexico on a school bus as a member of my Winthrop High School basketball team, to play in Mexico’s tiny gym, so small that the circles on the floor overlapped.
It was our last game of the season and we arrived undefeated and cocky. The Mexico team featured a couple of very short, stocky, and quick guards and they beat us.
It was a stinging defeat, but even more memorable to me was the sulfur stench of the town, the grittiness, the huge dominating presence of the Oxford Paper Company. I was very glad to get out of town.
Monica captures the heart and soul of a Maine mill town – and a time that is very long gone. Today, Monica notes, “The sign across the river says NewPage, after the investment company that bought out Mead-Westvaco, which bought out Mead, which bought out Boise-Cascade, which bought out Ethyl, which bought out The Oxford.”
I might add that the 3,000 jobs at The Oxford in the 1960s have shrunk to 750 today at NewPage, a company that is in bankruptcy.
This memoir could be taken as a fond farewell to Maine’s once-thriving small towns – but it is a lot more than that. I see it as a lovingly told tale expressed with remarkable insights but without judgment.
In Monica’s words, her memoir is a chance, “to look back, with new eyes, on what you did not know you knew.” It’s hard to accept that I came to and left Mexico and never knew anything of this remarkable story.
With this memoir, Monica has allowed me to look back on Mexico with new eyes and know what I did not know in 1966. She must have shed a lot of tears writing this book, as I did reading it.
I won’t even try to describe the heart-breaking – yet somehow uplifting – troubles of this Dad-less family living in a desperate Maine mill town. But I should note – given the title – that President Kennedy’s assassination – the same year her Dad died - plays an important part in bringing understanding to young Monica.
Following the loss of her Dad, Monica retreated into books. “I’d always loved books for their reassuring heft, for their promise of new words, for their air of mystery, for the characters who lived in them, for the sublime pleasure of disappearing.”
After many years of perhaps disappearing into her own novels, in this memoir, Monica reappears – assuring that even though The Oxford, Mexico High School, and even Monica herself are gone from that small mill town on the east side of the Androscoggin River, that place will never be forgotten.
May this column, in some small way, be my apology for being less than enthusiastic when Monica told me, two years ago, that instead of a new novel, she was writing a memoir. Read it and weep, read it and wonder, read it and rejoice.