Better Days

By Sally Susman
Jean Kennedy Smith Todd Plitt/Contour by Getty Images

“The Nine of Us”
Jean Kennedy Smith
Harper, $29.99

Haven’t we had enough of the Kennedys? I feel satiated with this family’s story. Like many, I know the anecdotes and am familiar with the dynasty’s glorious highs and tragic lows. Goodreads lists 133 books under the header “Best Books About the Kennedys.” I have 10 of them on my bookshelf.

In “The Nine of Us: Growing Up Kennedy,” Jean Kennedy Smith, the penultimate child of Joe and Rose Kennedy’s nine offspring, doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know. In fact, in many instances, the author tells us far less, especially about the sorrows of death, infidelity, and disability. 

Ms. Smith does, however, uniquely offer the vantage point of a kindhearted sister. She shares her memories from an exclusive perspective inside the history-making set of siblings. On that claim, “The Nine of Us” is a lovely addition to the Kennedys’ literary history.

This memoir opens with a description of the family home in Hyannis Port, Mass. “The white house looked out over the sea. It was a sturdy and practical house, an overgrown Cape Cod cottage with white wooden shingles and black shutters, set back on a lawn that was worn in places from too many football games. A circular drive brought you up to the front steps, which ascended onto a long, wide porch. The beach waited just beyond the grass. A breakwall jutted out to the left to help calm the sometimes unruly seas.”

The author’s portrayal of the well-built white house sited just beyond the “unruly seas” seems a metaphor for the family’s solidarity and protection in a volatile and dangerous world.

As one often hears from children of big families, the older ones were drafted to raise the younger ones. “Mother and Dad taught us to take care of one another without telling us to. They taught us to love one another without forcing us to,” Ms. Smith writes. Joe Kennedy Jr., the eldest, asked that she be his goddaughter. “I never felt alone,” she reflects. 

Ms. Smith could have retitled the book “The Eleven of Us,” since her parents are ever-present in each scene. Every chapter opens with a quote from either Rose or Joe Kennedy. 

“At the helm were Mother and Dad. Mother, a petite woman with an indomitable nature and a sure understanding of what we needed in life. Dad, a towering presence, always with the right answer for our worries and a tender place for our growing spirits. They were our leaders, teachers, and champions. They made everything possible. They made everything clear. Our story is theirs. Falling in line, matching their step, into life we marched.”

Early in the book, Ms. Smith offers brief profiles of each sibling in chronological order. The characterizations are mostly polite and lack the bite that siblings often feel. “Joe seemed to know we were looking up to him. . . . Jack took books everywhere he went. . . . Rosemary had a beautiful Irish face and smile.” 

In these personality sketches, and in many instances throughout the work, Ms. Smith’s diplomatic skills take control. I wished for an author who was a little less of a lady and more a woman. The reader longs for a bit of sour to break the saccharine reminiscences. We want to know what emotions were inevitably roiling below the chipper commentary.

In contrast, the numerous photographs, generously lent from museums, libraries, and private family collections, will surprise and move even the most seasoned of Kennedy watchers. These extraordinary images stirred my heart as they reminded me of a more optimistic and hopeful America. They reveal poignant moments that show the Kennedys were really a flesh-and-blood family.

The narrative strengthens when it goes a bit deeper and touches on more delicate topics. The stories of her immigrant grandparents and the prejudice they endured are authentic and relevant. “They left for the only reason anyone would ever leave Ireland: They were starving, and desperate for work,” Ms. Smith explains, going on to recall the prevalence of “No Irish Need Apply” signs across Boston at the time. 

The author does not include anything of her years as the United States ambassador to Ireland. The reader wonders how the poetry of that appointment must have felt.

Similarly, Ms. Smith barely touches on the challenges faced by her sister Rose, writing little more than that she had trouble keeping up with the others and that her condition was difficult to treat. And yet, later in life, Ms. Smith founded an organization that provides art and education opportunities to people with disabilities. Again, the reader hungers to know how her history informed her adult feelings and choices.

Her words grow lyrical and her spirit seems to soar when writing about the ocean. Life lessons were mixed in with sailing instruction. “In our family, we found common ground on the sea,” she writes. “Saltwater was in our blood, in our genes.” 

Ms. Smith’s urgency is revealed in the epilogue. “It is sometimes difficult to comprehend that I am the only member of our original family still living.” She adds, “My parents and brothers and sisters had the earliest and most profound influence on my life, and I remain so proud of what they accomplished in the years that followed those special, yet too-short days that we all spent together.” 

She concludes the book with a passage from a letter that her father wrote to her brother Bobby, who was at that time a young boy of 14, at the height of World War II: “It is boys of your age who are going to find themselves in a very changed world, and the only way you can hold up your end is to prepare your mind so that you will be able to accept each situation as it comes along. So don’t, I beg of you, waste any time. Do all the things necessary to get yourself in good physical condition — and work hard.”

Ms. Smith punctuates this call to action — which has particular agency just now — with a final “Amen.”

Sally Susman is regular book reviewer for The Star. She lives part time in Sag Harbor.

Jean Kennedy Smith lives in Sagaponack.

Jack, Jean, Rose, Joe, Pat, Bobby, and Eunice Kennedy, with Teddy in front, on Cape Cod in 1948. The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston