Sometimes history is best taught (and learned) through fiction — but only when the story told is firmly grounded in facts. Jack 1939 — a spy thriller starring a 22-year-old John F. Kennedy — is amusing, and it appears credible in its treatment of Kennedy’s persistent illnesses and strained relationships with his parents and most of his siblings. But placing him at the center of an improbable tale of espionage involving his father, Franklin D. Roosevelt, J. Edgar Hoover, Reinhard Heydrich, Winston Churchill, and other historical figures is taking the whole thing a step too far.
Jack 1939 by Francine Mathews (2012) 365 pages
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It’s too much of a stretch to imagine the Harvard senior dashing from one European capital to another on a perilous journey to prevent the Nazis from electing his father in place of FDR and preventing U.S. entry into what would soon become World War II. Yes, Kennedy did, in fact, travel throughout Europe on the brink of war in 1939, including Nazi Germany, but it was really (not ostensibly) to research the senior thesis that was published under the title While England Slept.
Here, for example, is FDR — yes, President Roosevelt — in conversation with young Jack Kennedy: “As far as the Nazis are concerned, you’re clean as the driven snow. They know your dad and I don’t always agree. They’ll never expect you to be my man in Europe.”
Francine Mathews is a former CIA analyst who has built a career as a writer of mystery and spy fiction. She has written two dozen books, including twelve featuring Jane Austen as an amateur detective. The latest of her books is Too Bad to Die, a superb espionage novel starring Ian Fleming, cast from the same mold as Jack 1939. It’s no stretch to imagine mature Royal Navy Commander Ian Fleming — who was, in fact, an officer in British intelligence — as a gun-toting secret agent. Sickly, undernourished, ill-prepared Jack Kennedy in a similar role at 22 doesn’t ring true.
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