Francine Mathews’ new novel Jack 1939 invents a story where Harvard senior John F. Kennedy gets recruited by President Roosevelt to foil a Nazi plot that would rig the 1940 U.S. presidential election to elect an isolationist who wouldn’t interfere with Hitler’s plans for Europe. Jack travels to Europe to research his senior thesis (later published as Why England Slept) and tries to intercept a charity ledger that contains the names of American and British citizens who have (knowingly or unknowingly) contributed to Nazi efforts to intervene in American politics. The fact that Jack’s dad (and known FDR rival) Ambassador Joseph Kennedy is on that list gives JFK’s mission a bit more urgency.
In the course of his mission, Jack sleeps with a married woman, helps smuggle the Enigma machine out of Poland, hangs out with Churchill, stabs a Gestapo agent and secretly communicates with FDR via telegraph from rooftops all over Europe. The story works because Mathews starts with some historical facts (FDR’s problems with Kennedy Sr. and J. Edgar Hoover, JFK’s tour of Europe, the Enigma machine, Churchill’s efforts to prepare for war despite Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s utter cluelessness and the actual Nazi efforts to influence U.S. opinion via German-American groups) and imagines a spy thriller tale that forges a personal connection between two of our most popular presidents.
Mathews says she was inspired to write Jack 1939 by this 1937 photograph of Kennedy bumming around Europe on a college break and the novel does a great job of portraying a version of JFK before his future wartime experiences would set him on his own path to the presidency.
You can get the book in hardcover or for the Kindle, iPad or Nook. There’s no paperback until next summer and there’s mysteriously no audiobook for guys like me. Mathews is a former CIA analyst who’s been writing novels for twenty years and her talent for historical spy fiction deserves to bring her success. Her next novel is about James Bond creator Ian Fleming’s (imagined) espionage activities during WWII, so here’s hoping she continues with this kind of work.