FARMINGTON — Monica Wood lives in Portland, Maine’s most populated city, but her heart remains in the small town of Mexico.

“You can take the girl out of Mexico, but you cannot take Mexico out of the girl,” Wood said Thursday night, following a reading at the University of Maine at Farmington. “That town is inseparable from who I am.”

Anyone who has read Wood’s memoir, “When We Were the Kennedys,” can testify to her claim. The book follows Wood growing up in Mexico with her family as they cope with the death of her father, who worked at the Rumford paper mill, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the paper mill’s first protracted labor strike. Wood weaves these three events together throughout the memoir as she explains how her father’s death was connected with Kennedy’s assassination.

“My mother, in particular, had a great shame in being widowed,” Wood said. “She was afraid that people would think she couldn’t take care of her family.”

Wood said her mother felt “consoled” by the way Jackie Kennedy made widowhood look “like something that was nothing to be ashamed of,” and in a way, felt like a big sister to Jackie.

“It was kind of like Jackie was helping my mother by elevating her status and restoring her dignity,” Wood said. “On the other hand, I think my mother felt she might have had something to give this glamorous woman who had more money than Moses.”

Wood worked at Westbrook High School for eight years as a guidance counselor, and spent her 20s doing “hustle work,” such as working at a nursing home, an insurance company and freelancing for magazines. In 1986, she decided to begin publishing her writing for a living.

 “When I was a guidance counselor, I followed one class from the time they were freshmen to when they were seniors,” Wood said. “In 1986, my class was graduating, and it was kind of like the Army, where I could choose to re-up for four more years. I didn’t want to leave my class in the lurch by leaving in the middle, so I decided that it was the perfect time to leave and just go for it.”

Before publishing “When We Were the Kennedys,” her first nonfiction book, Wood published fiction, including “Secret Language,” “My Only Story,” “Ernie’s Ark” and “Any Bitter Thing.” She eventually decided to dig into her own life to craft a memoir about her years in Mexico.

“When I was writing my memoir, I was feeling low,” Wood said. “I was in one of those troughs we get into, both personally and professionally. I really started writing this because I wanted to go home. I just wanted to go home. Writing about home felt like I was there.”

She wrote about the importance of the Rumford Paper Co. to the River Valley region, describing the mill as “the rumbling hard-breathing monster that made steam and noise and grit and stench and dreams and livelihoods and paper.”

Wood said she was up to date on the status of the Rumford Paper Co., including the layoff of 45 mill workers in February.

“It’s breaking my heart,” Wood said. “When I first heard about the recent round of layoffs, I literally cried. There were 45 people laid off, and one of them I knew. Some of the people have been there for 40 years or more. I guess we’ll see what happens. The town will have to remake itself somehow, because it’s obvious now that the mill won’t be there forever.”

In the eight months since her memoir was published, Wood said she has “visited a gazillion places” and has been told “by wonderful people at each place, ‘It feels like you’ve written my story.’

“The thing that’s been so surprising is how universal the themes of the books are,” Wood said. “There are just so many ways that people related to the book that surprised me a lot. You wouldn’t think so.”

The most surprising thing while touring cities around the United States, Wood said, was that she frequently ran into people who had once lived in Rumford or Mexico.

“I’ve visited Berkeley, Denver, Washington, D.C, and everywhere I went, except for Austin, Texas, there was at least one person in the audience from back home,” Wood said as the audience laughed.

Accolades continue to pour in for “When We Were the Kennedys.” Wood’s memoir recently won the 2012 May Sarton Memoir Award for best woman’s memoir published in the U.S. and Canada, was runner-up for the 2012 New England Book Festival Award in the autobiography category and was featured on Oprah’s 2012 summer-reading list.

“I really expected this book to just be a local publishing,” Wood said. “I thought it would get a short run in local bookstores, but it ended up getting picked up and going national. At first, I thought, ‘This is going to be weird,’ but I’ve had so much fun.”

She added, “Writing this book was an unmitigated joy,” Wood said. “I enjoyed every second. If I could go home right now and make this book disappear and write it all over again, I would do it. It was the most fun I’ve ever had writing.”

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