Peace Corps Writers

Read John Coyne's interview with Laurence Leamer

Sons of Camelot
The Fate of An American Dynasty
by Laurence Leamer (Nepal 1964–66)
William Morrow
March, 2004
656 pages

Sons of Camelot

  Reviewed by Paul Shovlin (Moldova 1996–98)

Laurence Leamer’s books are listed in the Bibliography of Peace Corps Writers

THE KENNEDY FAMILY has had its share of tragedy. Some have even felt that the family isPrinter friendly version cursed, as its most promising members seem to die early. Many of those who died were revered for what they could have done, had they lived longer lives, rather than for what they accomplished in their short, but vibrant time. But after reading Sons of Camelot: The Fate of an American Dynasty, by Laurence Leamer, one is left with the overarching theme of life. The 600-page book is bursting from the bindings with it. The lives of the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of the Kennedy clan that Leamer introduces to us offer a living legacy, at times one of sadness and turmoil, and become an eternal flame in their own right.
     Sons of Camelot covers the time period from JFK Jr.’s salute at his father’s funeral to the events surrounding his death off of Martha’s Vineyard in 1999. Leamer delves into the details of the lives of all the Kennedy cousins, which can only be understood by the full context of the family, including that of their parents and grandparents. When one takes into account the prolific nature of the Kennedy clan, Leamer’s undertaking becomes understandably ambitious. Joe Sr. and Rose, at the top of the family tree, had nine children. Many of their children had children, and so on. Notably, Bobby Kennedy, had 11 children of his own.
     Obviously, then, the book is an immense undertaking. Leamer is able to cover a lot of ground and introduce many figures, without losing a sense of cohesion. We get to know this varied cast of characters in the same way we’d get to know them in real life, through the elaborate web of their relationships to each other. We meet the main players as children, spend summers with them at Hickory Hill, play hard with them, and grow up with them as they make decisions that will alter their lives. Even for readers unfamiliar with the Kennedy family, it is relatively easy to keep names straight.
     Leamer remains largely objective in his telling of the stories. That is, he puts a human face on these historical figures that may seem larger than life. For example, he contextualizes Ted Kennedy in a way that may offer fuller perspectives than those available in the mass media. Ted is often understood by his failures in comparison to the potential of his late brothers. Leamer doesn’t gloss over Ted’s troubling past, he stares squarely at that night in Chappaquiddick. But, he also gives readers an insight into Ted’s motivations, his demons, and his strengths as a politician. In essence, Leamer makes Ted understandable without attempting to justify any of his failures. Finally, Ted is neither a saint, nor a villain, but a human.
     In a like manner, Leamer’s detailing of the life of JFK Jr. is quite compelling. Leamer does a notable job of chipping away the icon to find the man underneath. Through a combination of outside sources and interviews with friends, Leamer reconstructs JFK Jr.’s struggles with his nearly deified, yet absent, father, and the paparazzi and expectations that came with his name. At times, JFK Jr. is triumphant, for example in his successful work with Reaching Up, a program that granted educational awards for workers in service to those with mental retardation. And at other times, his story does not shine as brightly, like the night in 1999 when he attempted a flight that he was not capable of making, a flight that resulted in his death and the death of his wife and sister-in-law. In moments like these, Leamer crystallizes a historical moment and makes it accessible to the reader. The examples above are only two of many.
     Largely here I’ve neglected to mention the writing itself, and I think that is a mark of Leamer’s skill. The writing is unobtrusive. Authorial intent seems muted. Leamer has a way of writing and organizing that allows the stories to speak for themselves. At times, I forgot I was reading biographical history. In part, that’s a result of the drama inherent to the Kennedy tale, but it’s also due to Leamer’s clean prose.
     The generation that grew up in the age of Camelot will be especially interested in this book. But, for those of us who were born after Jack and Bobby were assassinated, Sons of Camelot offers a lens with which to view the historical, political, and cultural force that the Kennedy family has been in America. Many of the young people in my generation know of the iconic status that the Kennedy name entails, but only in a roundabout way, from stories we’ve heard about Jack and Bobby. When JFK Jr. died, we knew it meant something, but not quite what.
     For this reviewer, this was the strongest point of the book, the functionality of it. The histories that Leamer collects are an important key to a part of our national heritage. Leamer contributes to a fuller picture of the Kennedy family than the one available from the media. As stated above, the Kennedy’s have had their share of tragedy. But they’ve also had their share of triumphs, as is evidenced in the complex character studies of Laurence Leamer’s Sons of Camelot: The Fate of an American Dynasty.
In Moldova Paul Shovlin was a TEFL Volunteer. Since then he has relocated in Athens, Ohio and is enrolled in a Ph.D. program at Ohio University in Rhetoric and Composition.
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