5 Memoirs About Fathers

In celebration of Father’s Day, here are five memoirs about fathers.

The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr

Mary Karr describes a dysfunctional childhood—by turns hilarious and appalling—in an east Texas oil town. The book’s title comes from her father’s group of male friends who would assemble in the evenings to drink and see who could tell the tallest tale. Yet, despite her father’s drinking and her mother’s chaotic life fraught with secrets that eventually fractured the family, Karr avoids bitterness and anger by finding the humanity, or at least the humor, in most situations. She is primarily a poet, and her skill with language shines throughout her story. When my library book group read this many years ago, one woman said, “I wish we didn’t have to know about such a horrible childhood.” But I hold the opposite view: It’s important for us to read about such situations so that, as a society, we can understand and learn how to mitigate them.

When this book was first published in 1995, it helped usher in and nurture the reading public’s fascination with memoirs. The book description on Goodreads states that later editions of the book contain a new introduction about the book’s impact on Karr’s family. I’ll have to check the library, because that’s a topic that I, and a lot of other memoir writers and readers, would love to hear more about.

Gated Grief by Leila Levinson

As she was growing up, Levinson wondered why her father, a World War II veteran, often suffered from bouts of depression accompanied by outbursts of anger. Sometimes he could be a loving, caring father, but he became a different person during those times. To understand her father’s behavior she researched his war experiences and eventually learned of the atrocities he had witnessed in Europe during the war.

I read Levinson’s book with interest because, when it came out, I had begun exploring my own father’s life. He had joined the Navy in 1941 at the age of 17. I was born a few years after he returned from the war. He committed suicide at age 36. I don’t have many memories of him and nobody talked to me (I was not quite 12) when he died, but from what I can determine, I think he must have come home with a bad case of what we now call PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). I think Leila Levinson and I both saw first-hand what often happens to soldiers who have lived through the horrors of war.

The Shadow Man by Mary Gordon

Gordon’s father died when she was seven years old. Her vague memories led her to think of him as the Shadow Man. In those memories he was a loving father, a charming intellectual, a writer and publisher, a Harvard dropout who led a bohemian existence during the Jazz Age. But well into her adulthood she longed to know more about him and began researching his life.

What she discovered shocked her to the core. In addition to being the loving father she vaguely remembered, she found out that he had also lied about all aspects of his life, even his place and date of birth. He was born to a Jewish family at the end of the nineteenth century but later converted to Catholicism and became outspokenly anti-Semitic. He openly supported right-wing politics and became a literary critic who also wrote pornography. The term Shadow Man takes an ironic twist as Gordon examines how his lies about his—and her—heritage had shaped and defined her own sense of self.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

This is another memoir of children who grew up in a wildly dysfunctional family. The father captured his children’s imaginations with the wonders of science when he was sober, but when he drank he became desperate and destructive. The mother suffered from mental illness and refused to accept the responsibilities of parenthood. The children learned how to look after themselves and each other and eventually landed in New York City. Their parents later followed them there, where they chose to live as homeless people despite their children’s more settled lives.

Despite their childhood, this is a remarkable tale of family and resilience that is often compared to The Liars’ Club because both books share a similar tone. It is heartening to see the successful lives the adult Walls children have created for themselves after living through such a childhood.

An American Requiem by James Carroll

During the 1950s and 1960s Carroll’s father rose through the ranks of the FBI and the Air Force to become coordinator of military intelligence. Carroll entered seminary and was ordained as a Catholic priest, while his brother joined the FBI. James became increasingly disillusioned with American involvement in Vietnam and became an outright protester against the war that his father so actively advanced. James eventually left the priesthood, but his political differences with his father caused a rift that was never repaired before the elder Carroll’s death.

I was drawn to this memoir because I knew James Carroll slightly when he was a Catholic chaplain during my senior year at Boston University. This account contains more history and politics than I usually like in a memoir, but in this case that information is all necessary to understand Carroll’s personal journey. I was surprised to see a number of comments on Goodreads saying that the book comes off as self-serving and self-aggrandizing. I didn’t know Jim Carroll very well, but I knew him well enough to know that the deep soul-searching in this memoir is genuine. This book well illustrates the function of memoir as a method of self-discovery and personal growth.

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

5 Novels About Fathers

Father’s Day is upon us.

The greatest novel about fathers that I’ve ever read is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Here are five more.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

In 1959 evangelical Baptist preacher Nathan Price takes his wife and four daughters to the Belgian Congo to deliver God’s message. They take with them as many possessions as possible—everything from garden seeds to boxes of cake mix—only to find that they are completely unprepared for their new life. Rev. Price insists on trying to pound the round peg of his American way of life into the square hole of the African environment, refusing, for example, to plant seeds as the local inhabitants try to teach him to prevent the plants from being washed away by the area’s torrential rains.

The book is narrated alternately by Price’s wife and daughters as they describe their life in Africa over the next 30 years. Kingsolver convincingly creates a distinct, distinguishing voice for each character. The use of multiple narrators has become common in contemporary novels. This is the book I always use as my touchstone for evaluating how successfully other authors create multiple voices in their fiction.

Father Melancholy’s Daughter by Gail Godwin

This memorable novel tells the story of Margaret, a young woman coming of age during the 1970s in the southern state of Virginia in the U.S. Margaret is the daughter of an Episcopal priest who suffers from periodic bouts of severe depression—the melancholy of the book’s title. When Margaret was a young child, her mother left home for a vacation that gradually extended to a year before the mother was killed in an auto accident.

Despite the father’s religious vocation—and it is a strong and recurrent theme throughout the novel—this is the story of the strong relationship between a father and his daughter. Although religion figures prominently in the family’s story, the novel is never preachy or strident. One of Godwin’s strengths as a novelist is her ability to create a whole universe for her characters to inhabit, and religion here is one of the components of the fictional world. Read Father Melancholy’s Daughter if you love a beautiful story beautifully written.

& Sons by David Gilbert

A.N. Dyer is a reclusive author nearing the end of his life when he agrees to deliver the eulogy for Charles Topping, his best friend since early childhood. But during the funeral Dyer breaks down as he realizes the mistakes he has made in his own life. To try to reconnect with his family, he calls together his three sons: two middle-aged men and the 17-year-old love child whose birth broke up his marriage. When the youngest son returns for a break from his exclusive boarding school, the two older sons join him at Dyer’s swank Manhattan home. Charles Topping’s adult son Philip, who grew up circling but never truly absorbed into the famous author’s family, narrates the story of this family reunion.

As is often the case with novels about novelists, this book considers metafictional questions about the nature of fiction, the publishing world, the writing life, and who has the right to tell a particular story. At times author Gilbert seems to enjoy such considerations a bit too much—“Look what a clever writer I am!” the text often screams. As a student of literature, I enjoyed the metafictional aspects, but I also appreciated the book as what it is at its center, a story about love, friendship, and the relationships between fathers and sons.

The Chatham School Affair by Thomas H. Cook

Lawyer Henry Griswald, now in his 70s, narrates this novel about a life-changing event that occurred when he was 15 and a student at the boys’ prep school where his father served as headmaster. As a favor to a friend, his father had hired Elizabeth Channing as the school’s art teacher. From the moment she stepped off the bus in Chatham and moved into an isolated cottage near the lake, the beautiful Miss Channing drew the attention of everyone in the village. The novel gradually builds an atmosphere of foreboding that culminates in tragedy.

This book is a mystery in its probing of what really happened on that fateful day. However, it does not move at the breakneck speed of many current mystery or thriller novels. Instead, Henry Griswald takes his time thinking about the event. In a psychologically credible process he circles repeatedly around the tragedy, coming ever closer to the kernel of truth and the resulting self-knowledge at its center. In coming to understand his own involvement, Henry develops some insight into his father, with whom he always had a cold, distant relationship.

The Great Santini by Pat Conroy

Meet Bull Meecham: U.S. Marine, fighter pilot, Southerner, and absolute master of his home and family. In this autobiographical novel Conroy creates a fully developed character whom, like the fictional family members, readers will both love and hate. Nobody ever does anything well enough to please Bull. The story unfolds over the senior year of high school basketball player Ben, the oldest Meecham child. Like all members of the family, Ben constantly tries both to please his father and to avoid verbal and physical abuse.

In addition to his skill at characterization, Conroy is a great descriptive writer. The American South comes to life in this novel, which portrays a flawed human being in all his messiness while eliciting the range of conflicting emotions we often feel for the people closest to us.

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown