There is a conundrum that faces every author who seeks to write about a famous subject. How does one approach a topic that has been endlessly poked and prodded? Every author’s hope is to provide some sort of clarity --- to find the hidden angle that has somehow escaped popular attention over the years. Of course, there are other ways to approach such things: some depictions offer alternate versions of the events, many attempt to make the seemingly incomprehensible finally make sense, while still others simply aim for a sensitive or even poetic interpretation of facts.
John F. Kennedy’s assassination is such a topic. Conspiracy theorists, forensic detectives and the average American alike have all interested themselves in the case that left the nation in a state of shock. Fifty years later, it is hard to imagine that there is that much left unsaid.
James L. Swanson, in his recently released END OF DAYS, describes in painstaking detail the events leading up to, during and after the fatal event, at one point tracking Lee Harvey Oswald’s movements by the second. Attention to detail is incredibly important when trying to determine exactly what happened that day, but Swanson’s book does not appear to have much to add to the accepted interpretation of events. While claims that Bobby Kennedy may have secreted away the sealed vessel containing JFK’s brain are interesting (whether or not you believe this to be in any way likely), Swanson does not dwell on the possibility, merely leaving it dangling for readers to take or leave as they see fit.
"James L. Swanson...describes in painstaking detail the events leading up to, during and after the fatal event, at one point tracking Lee Harvey Oswald’s movements by the second.... What END OF DAYS does provide is a vivid if ephemeral vision of the confusion and horror surrounding JFK’s assassination."
The book spends a remarkably small amount of time on building a full image of the President himself, focusing instead on individuals surrounding him. Admittedly, these people were fascinating: his beautiful, private wife, the vice president who had openly clashed with his brother, and, of course, the bizarre assassin. Still, these depictions do not feel robust enough to carry the book themselves.
Part of this is due, naturally, to historic circumstance. How much information can you get from an assassin who was killed just days after he committed the crime? How much would you really expect a wife who has just experienced a very public tragedy to come forward and discuss? How could a new president get a handle on his change of circumstance if he were constantly referring back to his predecessor? Even acknowledging the challenges that Swanson faces (or perhaps because these specific challenges may lead one to expect a certain amount of creative interpretation), it’s hard not to expect a little more meat.
The strongest portrait of someone close to JFK is that of his wife, Jackie. Jackie’s response immediately following the assassination is raw; Swanson describes how she hands the doctors part of her dead husband’s brain as though it could be put back inside of him. Her desire that people should see the destruction wrought upon her husband --- as evidenced by the blood and brains splattering her famous pink suit --- is both moving and punishing. The moments following the assassination, during which she appears unquestionably vulnerable, are some of the most accessible of her public life. Days later, her drive to develop the myth of “Camelot” and attempts to control the press in the aftermath make her, in many ways, more distant from the American public.
What END OF DAYS does provide is a vivid if ephemeral vision of the confusion and horror surrounding JFK’s assassination. The memory of the assassination has been endlessly recalled across generations. Parents who forget their children’s birthdays can still remember with absolute clarity where they were when they found out the President had been shot. The assassination is a wound that may never fully heal in the American narrative; undoubtedly, there will always be new authors ready to add their voices to the fray.
Reviewed by Rebecca Kilberg on November 22, 2013