Two years ago, I met Monica Wood in Portland’s Longfellow’s Cemetery, where 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 No. 5, and was disappointed to hear that instead of a novel, she was working on a memoir of growing up in Mexico. I couldn’t imagine a memoir about this Maine mill town that would be as compelling as one of her novels, or even interesting.

Wow, was I ever wrong. A few weeks ago, I received “When We Were the Kennedys,” 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.

The memoir begins as Wood’s father drops dead on his way to work at the Oxford Paper Co. She was 9 years old. “The Oxford,” as they called it, dominated Rumford and Mexico as the principal employer in the 1960s.

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, one 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 Wood’s father died, I rode into Mexico on a school bus as a member of my Winthrop High School basketball team, to play in Mexico’s tiny gymnasium, 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 paper mill. 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, Wood 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 Wood’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 visited Mexico and never knew anything about this remarkable story.

With this memoir, Wood 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 fatherless family living in a desperate Maine mill town. I should note, given the book’s title, that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated the same year her dad died. The president’s death plays an important part in bringing understanding to young Monica.

Following the loss of her father, 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, Wood reappears in this memoir, assuring that the place will never be forgotten even though high school and even Monica herself are gone from that small mill town on the east side of the Androscoggin River.

May this column, in some small way, be my apology for being less than enthusiastic when Wood 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.

George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon 04352, or [email protected] Read more of Smith’s writings at

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