What I’ve Been Reading: First Half of November


My reading and audio book listening has been seriously impacted by my participation for the third straight year in NaNoWriMo — aka National Novel Writing Month. This year I’m completing my royal novella.


I admit I’ve had this one for a while–I actually started reading it in June, 2014, then stalled. The European refugee crisis brought it back to mind and I devoured the rest of it. I’m like that with books.

The tragic story of Pope Pius XI, a former Vatican librarian (priests have other roles beyond pastoral duties) and his attempts to disown Mussolini after working closely with his regime in the 1920s and early 1930s. When the Duce decided to go along with Nazi racial policies and espouse Nazi hatred of the Jews, however, Pius decided to disown him.

But by this time–1938/39, the Pope was a dying man. He also had a legitimate ax to grind with Hitler. By this time, the Nazi regime had held show trials of priests, monks and nuns to show that sought to discredit the church — showing nuns, priests, and other “religious” as sexual predators and child abusers. Hitler threatened to reveal much more–the sort of things that came to light in the last decade or so about pedophilia especially. Sadly, the speech Pope Pius XI planned to give denouncing Hitler’s policies never happened. In fact the text of the speech didn’t come to light for many years. The pope died before he could give his speech.

This story shows the differences between Mussolini and Hitler. Mussolini was in power far longer. He did not take any action against the Jews until deciding to throw his lot in with Hitler late in the 1930s.  Within the Vatican there were many supporters of his racial theories–after all this was still a church of darkness, the church of the Inquisition, known for teaching that the Jews killed Jesus. It would take 3 more decades before any form of modern enlightenment would come to the Vatican under the leadership of Pope John XXIII.

As others have noted, this book–which recently won the Pulitzer Prize–reads like a thriller. It is not a dense history tome–it is very readable, novel-like prose, but exceptionally well-documented.



Side note: It is Pius XII who met with isolationist American Ambassador to Britain Joseph Kennedy and who served a very young Teddy Kennedy his first Holy Communion, but that is another story! [Photo credit: Associated Press.]

The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascim in Europe by David I. Kertzer

rosemaryWe are all aware today that it was her mentally disabled sister, Rosemary, who inspired Eunice Kennedy Shriver to create the Special Olympics. It was Rosemary’s plight that led Mrs. Shriver to campaign for equal access to education for the mentally disabled as well. But, until now, what the public knew of Rosemary Kennedy’s life could be summed up in one of the most horrifying words in the English language: Lobotomy.

While Rose Kennedy is often seen as one of the most admired women in an American history and is remembered, too, as the famously organized mother of nine who kept a card file on her children so she could recall who’d had chicken pox when and that sort of thing, the truth is that Mrs. Kennedy was a very typical upper-class mother.Like another famous “outstanding” mother, Princess Diana, she relied constantly on nurses, nursemaids, governesses, tutors and boarding schools to allow her the freedom she wanted to travel, to attend daily mass, to play golf, to do what she wanted.

She undoubtedly loved her children. She loved her faith and worshiped at daily mass all her life. She set a regime for her children that broadened their minds, kept them busy to the point of hyperactivity yet knew each as an individual.  She made sure they had roughage in their diet. She set an example for her daughters of what an upper-class Catholic lady should be. She also famously let her faith guide her thru the many, many years of what must have been utterly humiliating sexual prowling by her husband–something that would sadly influence her sons for the worst. But most of all she bravely kept on after the tragic deaths of 3 of her 4 sons and 1 of her 5 daughters. And she lived with the consequences of the most ill-fated decision in parenting history–Rosemary’s lobotomy.

Rose Marie Kennedy–later called Rosemary–was the eldest daughter in the fabled nine child line-up. Rose Kennedy should have had the show “Nine Kids and Counting”–she famously told daughter-in-law Ethel when Ethel gave birth to her 10th child that, ‘had [she] known it was a contest she would not have stopped at nine.’ Her attitude on this was not a-typical of devout Catholic mothers of the day. But Rosemary, it soon became clear, was different from her active siblings. While Jack was sickly, he kept up with big brother Joe Jr. Rosemary didn’t grasp things easily. She lacked the fabled Kennedy athleticism. In the parlance of the day, Rosemary was “retarded” in her development.

Rose and husband Joe would spend the next 15 or so years of her life shunting Rosemary around from school to school trying to find a “cure” for her. We must remember that in that day disabilities of any kind were a black mark on the whole family. Having Rosemary discovered as disabled could keep the other Kennedy children from marrying someone–the other family not wanting those disabled “traits” to appear in grandchildren. Children like Rosemary were kept at home and out of public sight. Joe Kennedy had millions of dollars to try to cure his daughter and his search for that cure was both exhaustive and expensive. Finally, this search led to a surgeon and the destruction of Rosemary’s mind.

What was surprising to me, but shouldn’t have been seeing how things get “spin” added in politics, was just how seldom Rosemary was at home with her siblings. What was shocking was how seldom Rose visited her daughter when she was “parked” somewhere. Joe Kennedy, for all that he made that worst parenting decision ever, was the caring parent. “Rosie” as he called her, adored her father. Both parents though rigidly enforced a code of behavior toward Rosemary by her siblings. She was included at events where he absence would be noticed. When Mrs. Kennedy and Kathleen were presented to the King and Queen, so was Rosemary. But that’s about it.

Joe took real time with her, writing letters, arranging treats, motivating her to try as hard at school as her abilities allowed. He also harped on her weight, but that was not unusual then, either. But as his time as Ambassador drew to a close he went home. Rosemary, at first, did not. She remained in England, overseen by her “foster” parents–Joe Kennedy’s right-hand-man, Edward Moore–the man for whom Teddy was named. It wasn’t until the war really started and bombings began that she was brought home and again, dumped, first in a camp then at a school.

It has always surprised me that the Kennedy family—especially in the years before the assassinations–didn’t just pass Rosemary off as a nun. It was often implied, but she wasn’t. Joe built a house at a Catholic school for special needs children just for Rosemary and her caregivers. For most of her siblings this was the end of Rosemary. But after Joe Kennedy’s debilitating stroke, which uncharitably could be seen as divine retribution for the lobotomy since he was left unable to speak or communicate, Rosemary was brought back into the fold by Mrs. Shriver. The rest is the history of the Special Olympics and of U.S. Special Education legislation.

Kate Larson makes both Joe and Rosemary come alive–the child desperate to measure up and the father desperate to fix his child. Highly recommended.

Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter by Kate Clifford Larson












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