Bookworm: ‘First Kennedys’ – A great book for genealogists, history-lovers

Enjoy 6th-century epics? Then loving ‘The Dark Queens’ is within the realm of possibility

Terri Schlichenmeyer
Columnist

“The First Kennedys: The Humble Roots of An American Dynasty”

  • By Neal Thompson
  • c. 2022, Mariner Books
  • $28, 358 pages

A fresh new page. No matter how old you are, that’s always a treat: the first clean page in a new book or journal. It’s like a spritz of chilled water on a hot day; like crisp, clean sheets on a hotel bed. A new page, a fresh start, a different step, as in the new book “The First Kennedys” by Neal Thompson, a whole new life of opportunity.

"The First Kennedys: The Humble Roots of An American Dynasty" by Neal Thompson.

On his way home from reporting on the accident that killed John Kennedy, Jr., Neal Thompson drove past the cemetery where his Irish grandparents lay and he began to think about his roots. His grandfather, Patrick, and his grandmother, Bridget, had joined millions of fellow Irishmen and -women to make the journey to America.

Some of those Irish folk were Kennedys.

Thompson imagines that one of them saw what was in her future...

Women in Ireland in the mid-1800s were second-class citizens, at best, meant only for work and childbirth, and what Bridget Murphy faced was a rough life made even worse by famine. And so she said goodbye to her parents and siblings and boarded a ship, alone, that would take her past her beloved Ireland and to America, to Boston.

In her time, says Thompson, Bridget was a common name with several derivitives, popular due to a culturally and religiously important Catholic Saint. Because off its commonness, and since most female Irish immigrants became domestics, the name ultimately became synonymous for servant. Thus, though industrious and watchful for opportunity, Bridget became a “Bridget” – at least, until she met Patrick Kennedy.

And so, Bridget married Patrick, and they lived an average mid-19th century immigrant life. Patrick worked as a cooper, Bridget was a maid; they had three daughters before Bridget gave birth to a son, John, a beloved child who died of “summer diarrhea” at age 20 months. Three years later, tragedy struck again: just after the birth of their fifth child, Patrick took sick of consumption and died on November 22, 1858, exactly 105 years before the assassination of his great-grandson, the President.

One of the best things about a good story is imagining yourself in it. Author Neal Thompson makes that entirely possible: read “The First Kennedys,” and you’re hungry in Ireland, you’re sailing and seasick, you’ve just arrived on a crowded wharf, you must fight to survive.

And yet, despite the horrors that Thompson describes, he also lends a sense of wonder and pride to the story of those early Kennedys, Bridget especially. She’s a heroine, keeping her fatherless children together at a difficult time while moving up in the world of commerce, and instilling in her youngest son that same square-shouldered fearlessness. Her story, and the background it’s set in, will keep you on the edge of your seat, and they’ll give you a new appreciation for the millions of immigrants who crossed the ocean and changed America.

Indeed, this is a great book for genealogists as well as history-lovers and fans of politics. Find “The First Kennedys” and turn the page ...

More:Bookworm: ‘Funny Farm’ will make any reader purr

“The Dark Queens: The Bloody Rivalry That Forged the Medieval World”

  • By Shelley Puhak
  • c. 2022, Bloomsbury
  • $30, 368 pages

Everything of the realm is yours. The castle, the armies, the fields, knolls, woods, and waters, let’s say they’re all yours. You have servants, jewels, gold, and treasure. You literally rule from a throne but good luck keeping it because, as in the new book “The Dark Queens” by Shelley Puhak, someone else wants it, too.

"The Dark Queens: The Bloody Rivalry That Forged the Medieval World" by Shelley Puhak.

In ancient times, the names of rulers were cast in stone: monuments, statues, stone tablets and such proclaimed the names for all to know and remember. If someone was deposed in disgrace or as punishment, their images were literally scratched from history.

That, says Shelley Puhak, is what likely happened to Queens Fredegund and Brunhild, who ruled over what is now much of Europe, the Netherlands, and parts of Switzerland “some 1,400 years ago.” Their near-disappearance from history was not due to ineptness, however. It was because they were successful.

It started with a father’s folly. King Sigibert had his eye on Princess Brunhild for quite some time. She would have been a “prestigious mate” for him, and the marriage would help seal many alliances. Sigibert was the ruler of the Kingdom of Austrasia, one of four smaller kingdoms that resulted when Sigibert’s father, Clothar, divided his kingdom amongst his sons.

While that might seem like an equitable thing to do, it caused a wide, bitter rift between the brothers, especially Sigibert and Chilperic of Neustria. Chilperic was determined to gain more of his father’s land but he was quite mercurial, and distracted by a former slave girl who, after the mysterious murder of his second wife, became Chilperic’s third bride. Fredegund, Puhak indicates, was as lovely as she was cunning.

“The Dark Queens: The Bloody Rivalry That Forged the Medieval World” author Shelley Puhak.

Years of eavesdropping on the household had honed Fredegund’s understanding of alliances and using connections. Likewise, Brunhild had watched her mother do the same thing in her father’s kingdom. Both Queens knew what it would take to remain in power, with or without Kings by their sides.

Both would do whatever it took...

When there are several maps and a lengthy list of who’s who at the beginning of a book, please pay heed. In this case, it signals that “The Dark Queens” may be a handful.

Going back to the fall of Rome, author Shelley Puhak moves forward quickly, giving readers the lay of the land and its many rulers, before getting to the meat of her tale. Yes, it’s necessary but you may wish it wasn’t because it’s a lot to absorb. Add in battles, skirmishes, warriors, victorys and defeats in and around Frankish-held areas and you’ve got your work cut out for you.

You won’t mind that one bit, though, if you’re a fan of Game of Thrones and such. Puhak packs the intrigue and drama of early Medieval Europe in tightly, and there’s a gasp-worthy ending that’ll leave you breathless.

And so, if you’re casual about your history, you can leave this on the shelf. If you enjoy 6th-century epics or true-story fairy tales, then loving “The Dark Queens” is within the realm of possibility.

More:Bookworm: ‘Circus of Wonders’ – You’ll want what it’s got

The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books. Read past columns at marconews.com.