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The Bookworm Sez

A fresh new page.

No matter how old you are, that’s always a treat: the first clean page in a new book or journal. It’s like a spritz of chilled water on a hot day; like crisp, clean sheets on a hotel bed. A new page, a fresh start, a different step, as in the new book “The First Kennedys” by Neal Thompson, a whole new life of opportunity.

On his way home from reporting on the accident that killed John Kennedy, Jr., Neal Thompson drove past the cemetery where his Irish grandparents lay and he began to think about his roots. His grandfather, Patrick, and his grandmother, Bridget, had joined millions of fellow Irishmen and -women to make the journey to America.

Some of those Irishfolk were Kennedys.

Thompson imagines that one of them saw what was in her future…

Women in Ireland in the mid-1800s were second-class citizens, at best, meant only for work and childbirth, and what Bridget Murphy faced was a rough life made even worse by famine. And so she said goodbye to her parents and siblings and boarded a ship, alone, that would take her past her beloved Ireland and to America, to Boston.

In her time, says Thompson, Bridget was a common name with several derivitives, popular due to a culturally and religiously important Catholic Saint. Because off its commonness, and since most female Irish immigrants became domestics, the name ultimately became synonymous for servant. Thus, though industrious and watchful for opportunity, Bridget became a “Bridget” – at least, until she met Patrick Kennedy.

And so Bridget married Patrick, and they lived an average mid-19th century immigrant life. Patrick worked as a cooper, Bridget was a maid; they had three daughters before Bridget gave birth to a son, John, a beloved child who died of “summer diarrhea” at age 20 months. Three years later, tragedy struck again: just after the birth of their fifth child, Patrick took sick of consumption and died on November 22, 1858, exactly 105 years before the assassination of his great-grandson, the President.

One of the best things about a good story is imagining yourself in it. Author Neal Thompson makes that entirely possible: read “The First Kennedys,” and you’re hungry in Ireland, you’re sailing and seasick, you’ve just arrived on a crowded wharf, you must fight to survive.

And yet, despite the horrors that Thompson describes, he also lends a sense of wonder and pride to the story of those early Kennedys, Bridget especially. She’s a heroine, keeping her fatherless children together at a difficult time while moving up in the world of commerce, and instilling in her youngest son that same square-shouldered fearlessness. Her story, and the background it’s set in, will keep you on the edge of your seat, and they’ll give you a new appreciation for the millions of immigrants who crossed the ocean and changed America.

Indeed, this is a great book for genealogists as well as history-lovers and fans of politics. Find “The First Kennedys” and turn the page…

“The First Kennedys: The Humble Roots of An American Dynasty” by Neal Thompson
c.2022, Mariner Books
358 pages