When JFK Was My Father
By Amy Gordon
(Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, Hardcover, 9780395913642, 202pp.)
Publication Date: April 1999
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It's 1963 and thirteen-year-old Georgia decides to pretend that JFK is her father, certain that he won't let her down - unlike her own father, who is too busy with work and a love affair to pay much attention to her. Georgia's world is turned upside down when she and her mother leave their home in Brazil and return to the United States, where Georgia is immediately packed off to a boarding school. At school Georgia fails almost all of her classes and feels as if she'll never fit in with the other girls. But as time passes, and with the help of her English teacher, some friendly voices, and her own growing self-awareness, Georgia begins to realize her self-worth and the true significance of her three most treasured possessions: a pebble from her friend Tim, her stamp collection, and her photograph of JFK. She also discovers many truths about the people in her life.
Amy Gordon has written four books for children. She teaches drama at the Bement School and lives in Montague Center, Massachusetts, with her two sons.
When 14-year-old Georgia Hughes' mother finds out about her husband's other woman, she whisks Georgia from Brazil back to the U.S. and the Beard Boarding School. With her world turned upside down, Georgia can cling to a few things: the moonstone given to her by a special boy named Tim and a picture of John F. Kennedy. Georgia decides that JFK is her real father and spends much of her time in an intense, imaginary relationship, which keeps her from paying too much attention to nasty classmates and clueless teachers. When Tim appears at Beard, wanting her to run away with him, Georgia must decide how unhappy she really is and what course she wants her new life to take. Gordon writes in a vivid, defining style that allows Georgia to emerge as a fresh, fully realized character. Her relationships with both JFK and the long-dead founder of Beard seem as honest and true as the more problematic relationships she has with her fellow students. The plot turns will hold readers, but Georgia's reasons for those turns are not always developed. Although the 1960s setting does not play a prominent role in the book, Georgia's affection for JFK captures some of Kennedy's magic and accurately mirrors what so many felt for their young, handsome president.
In February of 1963, Georgia adopts John F. Kennedy as her father, preferring an imaginary but warm relationship with him to the emotional void of her own parents. She has little interest in either studying or making friends at the American School she attends in Rio, but on holiday at the family's beach house, Georgia immediately connects with fellow misfit Tim, who calls himself the Sand Prince and tells Georgia she is his Sand Princess. Shortly thereafter, Georgia's parents split, and she and her mother return to the States, where Georgia is shipped off to the only boarding school that will accept her. Once a leader in progressive education, the Beard School now seems to be merely a repository for girls from wealthy families. Georgia's account of her virtual abandonment at school by her parents and her barely conscious search for a home is both poignant and gently funny. Georgia often hears the voice of the deceased founder of the school, Wilma Beard (who offers surprisingly practical advice). Moving between the tangible world and the one inside her head, Georgia fails to fully engage at school: "For a solid week there was a flurry of testing. It gradually dawned on me that the tests were related to midterm grades....I was shocked." But even as she drifts from the hard facts of reality-it is easier to say that her real father is dead than admit to his lack of interest in her-she looks through the false exteriors of people to see the truth behind them. When the chance comes to escape altogether by running away with the Sand Prince, Georgia chooses the real world at last, discovering that she's more at home at Beard than any other place she's been. The novel is well paced with moments of dramatic tension -- as when Georgia is locked in the school's attic by jealous classmates -- and is peopled with interesting characters, who are vividly revealed in Georgia's refreshing narrative.
A believable look at life in boarding school in the 1960s, made surreal by the narrator's fantasy that she is John F. Kennedy's daughter, and her conversations with the school's long-dead founder. Right before they separate, Georgia's mother and father take her on vacation to a resort not far from their home in Rio de Janeiro. Georgia, shy and confused, meets Tim, a sensitive boy who shares her interest in stamps and whose parents are just as screwed-up as hers are. Their idyll is short-lived; soon Georgia's father is in Rio with his girlfriend, her mother settles into Washington, D.C., and Georgia is off to Connecticut, to the only boarding school that will take her. As she retreats more and more into a fantasy that her real father is JFK, Georgia has trouble finding friends, doesn't like her teachers, and ends up with a terrible report card. In her head she talks to Mrs. Beard, the down-to-earth founder of the school, deceased but apparently still able to help Georgia out of a jam. Tim makes a reappearance; he's run away from a nearby boy's school, but now he seems more peculiar than poetic. He wants Georgia to run away with him, but she, learning of the uproar at the school in the early hours of her disappearance and reeling from the news that JFK has been assassinated, decides that the students and teachers are her real family and refuge. Gordon's title and the premise offer more to adults than young readers, who won't understand the romantic hold JFK had on the country; Georgia's fantasy never rises above the level of a silly conceit. Aspects of the setting, both in Brazil and Connecticut, are powerfully realized, as is Mrs. Beard: even dead and without a ghostly form, she may be the most compelling character on the scene.