Alternate Histories: Jo Walton’s My Real Children & Bryce Zabel’s Surrounded by Enemies: What If Kennedy Survived Dallas?

Jo Walton's My Real ChildrenI have read several alternate histories this summer.

Jo Walton’s stunning new novel, My Real Children, is one of the best.  She is a literary science fiction writer who won the Nebula Award and  the Hugo Award in 2012 for her novel Among Others.  Her latest novel should appeal to readers of literature as well as science fiction fans.

The plot is as follows:  In 2015, the heroine, Patricia, is in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s disease.  She remembers two pasts:  in one she writes travel guidebooks in  Italy, spends every summer in Florence, and raises three children with her lesbian lover, Bee; in the other she is Tricia, the wife of a closeted gay man and mother of four who does not discover her vocation as a teacher or a satisfying heterosexual relationship until her husband leaves her.

Patricia is confused, the nurses say.

It was when she thought of her children that she was most truly confused. Sometimes she knew with solid certainty that she had four children, and five more stillbirths:  nine times giving birth in floods of blood and pain, and of those, four surviving.  At other times she knew equally well that she had two children, both born by caesarean section late in her life after she had given up hope.  Two children of her body, and another, a stepchild, dearest of them all.  When any of them visited she knew them, knew how many there were, and the other knowledge felt like a dream.  She couldn’t understand how she could be so muddled.

The novel spans her life from her childhood in the 1930s to the present.  After her father and brother die in World War II, she wins a scholarship to Oxford, where she makes friends in the Christian Union.  When a girl in the Union is falsely accused of having a lesbian relationship with a girl who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, Patty defends her.

The worlds diverge when Patty, teaching at a girl’s school, gets a call from her boyfriend Mark Anston, who has done very poorly in his exams. He says they must get married right away or end the relationship. In one timeline she says yes, in the other no. The one who says yes becomes known as Tricia, and her life is complicated and unhappy; the one who says no is Pat, and she has a happy, fulfilled life..

Even their worlds are different.  In one world Kennedy is assassinated, and in another he declines to run for a second term after the Cuban missile crisis.  In one world, one of Tricia’s children gets married on the moon;  in the other, Pat is frustrated because gay marriage is forbidden and the world is threatened by nukes and thyroid cancer.

A fascinating novel about two lives, different children and mothering styles, and different histories.

Surrounded by Enemies-  What If Kennedy... bryce zabelI am reading Bryce Zabel’s self-published novel, Surrounded by Enemies: What If Kennedy Survived Dallas?, which is nominated for the Sidewise Award for Alternate History.

Many, if not all, science fiction awards are now open to self-published novels.  Will any self-published books be included on the Man Booker Prize list?  I doubt it.

The premise of Zabel’s novel is that JFK survived the assassination attempt in Dallas. Zabel writes in a journalistic style:   the novel takes the form of a book based on articles from a fictitious magazine, Top Story.  Zabel, a TV producer, director, writer, and former CNN correspondent, perfectly mimics the slightly tabloid-like style.  (I know it well, because JFK meant so much to Catholics in the ’60s that my mother ordered every book about JFK.  Our favorite was The Torch Is Passed, by the Associated Press.)

In the introduction, Zabel explains,

Because Kennedy was the most mediagenic political figure of his time, and possibly of all time, I have created a media vehicle uniquely suited to tell his story.  Top Story magazine was, in this alternative historical reality, a struggling newsweekly routinely getting its lunch eaten by the publishing powers-that-used-to-be until it hitched its wagon to the charismatic young President’s star-crossed descent into scandal.

The scene of the attempted assassination is riveting, with its description of Secret Service Special Agent Clinton J. Hill’s leap into the car and throwing himself across JFK’s and Jackie’s bodies to protect them. In the book, he is hit and died; but in real life, Hill survived and jumped onto the back of limousine to escort them Parkland Memorial Hospital .)

Zabel writes,

As the presidential motorcade turned into Dealey Plaza, Secret Service Special Agent Clinton J. Hill did not like what he saw.  To the left of the President’s car was an open, landscaped area of the western end of downtown Dallas.  Hill, riding on the left running board of the follow-up car, felt his stomach tighten at the sight of so much open space. On the right, he saw the Texas School Book Depository, toward which the President was waving.  Hill glances up to the building’s higher floors.  The bodyguard’s reflex changed the course of history.

I am fascinated by the speculation about who plotted the assassination.  Kennedy had enemies in Cuba and the Soviet Union, the FBI, CIA, the Mafia, the Secret Service, everywhere.

In the novel, Kennedy’s secretary recalls that his first words to Robert when he came back were,

“We have to hit back, Bobby,” said the President.  “Whose side is Hoover on?”

At a private conference on the Kennedy compound with just a few trusted men, they decide to go along with with the cover-up accusation of Lee Harvey Oswald, because investigating the other leads could end in a military coup, a civil war, or a lost election.

This clever, solid, reasonably well-written novel will doubtless fascinate Kennedy fans, and though I am not a historian, I am certainly very interested in the details of the (fictional) cover-up. At the Kennedy Center last year on the 50th anniversary of JFK’s death, we milled and thronged in the lobby, looked at Kennedy’s rather overwhelming bust, and chatted about what Kennedy had meant to us and where we had been when he was shot.  We walked home from school early, a bit bewildered; then we sat in front of the TV for hours, and my grandfather gave us one of those lists of the similarities between Kennedy and Lincoln.  I had Jackie and Caroline paper dolls, which I was allowed to play with only in my room.

N.B.  I did not accept free copies of Surrounded by Enemies or D. J. Taylor’s outstanding novel, The Windsor Faction, also nominated for the Sidewise Award.   All for none, or none for all!  (Well, that’s not quite what I mean.)  I hope my ethics make sense to you.

2 thoughts on “Alternate Histories: Jo Walton’s My Real Children & Bryce Zabel’s Surrounded by Enemies: What If Kennedy Survived Dallas?

  1. Both fantasies because no one can live two lives: the first uses counterfactual history to reveal real history, the second sounds like the kind of brilliant women’s novel (delving subjectivity, dialoguing with its woman reader) I especially like. Thanks fort this blog.


  2. Ellen, this is an excellent women’s novel. There is no reason why it shouldn’t be in the fiction and literature section as well as the SF. Very well-written and enjoyable.


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