The First Kennedys: An Immigrant Maid, Her Bartender Son, and the Humble Roots of a Dynasty, by Neal Thompson

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Neal Thompson, and Mariner Books for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Always one to eagerly explore anything related to the Kennedys, I reached for this biographical tome by Neal Thompson. Rather than rehashing much of the Kennedy drama, from Joe and Rose onwards, Thompson turns his focus on the early Kennedys who settled in Massachusetts and paved the way for future successes. Thompson’s attention to detail and great storytelling abilities left me intrigued to learn so much about the family that has become synonymous with power and political machinations.

Thompson takes the story back to its roots, the heart of Ireland. It is here that the Kennedys found their start, in a country that was battling for an identity and independent rule. While Britain was a force to be reckoned with, many Irish felt they were left to suffer and forced to cut corners just to survive. Poverty was rampant, with disease a close second, all of which left citizens to look across the ocean and dream of a better life.

Two of these Irish folk were Patrick and Bridget Kennedy, who had seen the horrors of their country and wanted something better. It was only when they were able to flee that things took a noticeable turn for the better, settling in and around Massachusetts, where many other Irish folk took up lodgings. They settled and started a family, which they hoped would allow them to show the next generation of Kennedys a better life. However, this was not quite the case right off the bat. While the Irish presence in East Boston was reasonable, control of the schools and community was still held firmly by the English, or at least groups with little desire for Irish influence. Patrick and Bridget both faced significant hardships and their children suffered at the hands of cruel educators, seeking to indoctrinate them into Protestant ways.

It was only after a family tragedy that the Kennedys saw something positive come into their lives, when Patrick John (PJ) was born. The elder Patrick died not long thereafter, forcing Bridget to raise her children as a widow and work to put food on the table. A sharp minded boy, PJ would quickly grow and found himself exploring Boston and all its facets. As Thompson explains, PJ Kennedy chose many professions as a young man, always striving to better himself, likening mirroring the life of his mother. PJ took much away from each job, making connections that would prove useful when he eventually found his calling in politics. Thompson uses the latter portion of the biography to explore how PJ Kennedy rose in the ranks of the Democratic Party in Massachusetts to become a household name. His wheeling and dealing around the stature did not go unnoticed and he was surely able to pass this passion along to his own son, Joseph, who is introduced in the last chapter of the tome.

Neal Thompson does well to explore some of the early roots of the Kennedy family, how they found themselves fleeing the horrors of Ireland while never forgetting their past. The hard work and determination that each member of the family showed helped strengths the resolve the next generation and kept the flame alive for those Kennedy heirs many have come to know so well. While Camelot and all the glory of the Kennedy name might be waning over the last few decades, there is something about this family and their roots that has always drawn me in, and likely still will as long as well-developed books are written about them.

While I know little of Neal Thompson or his past writing, I was pleasantly surprised at how well this book flowed. A great deal fo information helped shape the narrative of the piece and gave me some needed framework to better understand how grit, determination, and political acumen entered the Kennedy gene pool. Now, with this exploration of the early generation, I have a better idea. Well-paced chapters, full of information, kept me wanting to learn more and left me eager to connect the dots. Written in such a way that any Kennedy fan could read it, without needing significant backstory to piece things together, Thompson makes the journey all the more exciting. I’ll definitely have a look for more of Thompson’s writing in the coming months.

Kudos, Mr. Thompson, for a great piece that has renewed my love for all things Kennedy.

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