Monday, April 23

Up Close: Robert F. Kennedy

A twentieth-century life
by Marc Aronson
Viking 2007

Part of a new series of biographies put out by Viking I was really looking forward to this one on RFK. I was hoping we had finally come to the place where the history of the latter half of the twentieth century would balance out the tri-war arc (Revolutionary, Civil and Second World War) that tends to dominate in textbooks. While Marc Aronson's contribution to this correction might have been welcome the book suffers from trying too hard to do too much.

In telling RFK's life story Aronson goes for a big-picture approach, attempting to give the scope and scale of RFK's world as well as his world view in attempting to define the man. In and of itself this isn't a bad thing but it takes a deft hand to draft a portrait that is both clear and contextual, and it takes greater caution with the way that information is supported. A person's life isn't always encapsulated in easy-to-understand chapters but like any good story it has a beginning, middle and end and, unless the subject has invented a time machine, generally moves in a forward direction through time.

No, I'm not suggesting that the only way to tell a person's life is a narrative a-to-b sequence of events, but the narrative being told needs to feel like it's moving forward in a way that will make sense to the reader and in the end provide them with a clear portrait of the subject. There are moments where history is condensed, where events months apart are casually referenced as taking place one after the other. Where dates are necessary they are given, but often they are presented as reference for other events in a way that provides both milieu and is deceptive.

Let's also be honest about the fact that most biographies written for children are provided as resources for school lessons, not likely pleasure reading, and in that light require a certain level of comprehension so that they can be used in reports. They can even be biased (and Aronson shows hint of his love of Bobby every time he makes sure to underline the man's faults, like an apologist) so long as they honest and clear in their appraisals.

Aronson's picture of RFK is presented deep within the soup of history that belongs to the Kennedy clan, alternately zooming in and out to show Bobby's place and influences. At times, especially in the first half of the book where his older brothers are showcased as foils, the book feels more like a biography of the Kennedy's than an examination of RFK. The book is muddled and slow to gain momentum: you could easily skip the forward, introduction and first two chapters of the book. Chapter One is designed to be one of those book-ending vignettes of Bobby on the presidential campaign trail just before he is assassinated but it presumes a reader born at the end of the Clinton administration has enough historical knowledge to appreciate the tension of this pending event. Aronson makes those sort of assumptions throughout which I think is a mistake.

In an attempt to keep the text breezy Aronson traffics in the unsupported statement, or sentences that must be taken on face value but still raise questions. At the democratic convention he reports that Lyndon Johnson and his aids were disorganized and inefficient, compared to Bobby and his crew, but doesn't explain in what ways or how this was crucial to the process. Further on he makes cursory mention of the buying of delegates in advance of the convention assuming the reader both understands how convention politics works, to say nothing of the electoral college. Throughout Aronson presents information in a way that only makes me want a second opinion, which if nothing else is a distraction from the story at hand.

He also makes spotty use of the attempt to make the book relevant to modern readers that tend to make it look silly. To bolster the idea of RFK coming from East Coast wealth but able to make himself empathetic with farm workers and civil rights activists Aronson points to the tough talk in rap music, to rappers who talk about "keeping it real", while raking in wealth and fame that pull them far from the real streets they rap about. In trying to discuss how unmoored RFK was following his brother's assassination he uses Phillip Pullman's example of what happens when a character in one of the 'His Dark Materials' books loses their animal daemons. What Aronson fails to point out in all this "relevance" is that while RFK was shrewed about his public image it was only after his older brother was assassinated RFK and he was finally free of the insecurities he had been held under since birth, that what he lost was also a personality pegged to always trying to prove he was as good as his brothers, to himself, to his father, to the world. I think that might have deserved a paragraph.

In the end I do think Up Close: Robert F. Kennedy can serve as a catalyst for a history-loving teen or tween to use as a jumping off point for delving into the 1960's. One look at the bibliography full of adult titles proves that there's a need for more age-appropriate materials but that shouldn't prove too much of a hindrance to the hungry.

There are other books in the Up Close series -- I'm looking forward to seeing what Ellen Levine does with Rachel Carson, and another on Johnny Cash by Anne E. Neimark that I might check out -- so I'm going to hold out hope that this was an anomaly.
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