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Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2011-02-14
- Reviewer: Staff
Soon after Pearl Harbor, Darnton's father, Barney Darnton, a correspondent for the New York Times, shipped off to the South Pacific, leaving behind infant Darnton and his older brother and mother. By year's end, Barney had been killed in the war. Darnton's mother, also a reporter and editor at the Times, struggled to raise her kids on her own. Darnton describes his adolescence, such as attending and getting expelled from prep school, attending college, meeting his future wife, and eventually finding his own way into journalism. In this unsentimental narrative, Darnton vividly chronicles the high-water era of classic journalism and his stints as a Times correspondent in Africa and Solidarity-era Poland, but what drives his memoir are the pursuit of the fullest possible picture of his father's death, the story of his mother's alcoholism and sobriety, and most of all, the quest for deeply buried facts about his parents and their relationship. (Mar.)
Finding the truth behind a father's death
In 1942, New York Times war correspondent Byron “Barney” Darnton died while covering World War II in the Pacific. His son John Darnton was only 11 months old when Barney was killed by a piece of shrapnel.
The younger Darnton’s Almost a Family, in which he traces the irrevocable effects of his father’s death, can best be described as an investigative memoir. Darnton spends the first half of the book describing a childhood without a stable male influence before devoting another chunk to recreating the memory of a man he barely knew. Overall, it’s a poignant look at one man’s efforts to put the pieces of his shattered family back together.
After Barney died, the parenting responsibilities fell to John’s mother, Eleanor. The family’s unexpected second act starts promisingly before a failed news service and raging alcoholism cause Eleanor to unravel, forcing John and his older brother, Bob, to adapt. Before their mother’s recovery, John is shuffled to the homes of sympathetic relatives and neighbors, forced to become independent far too soon.
The author turns out just fine, becoming a novelist and a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times, his father’s beloved stomping grounds. Darnton then uses those award-winning reporting skills to reconstruct his parents’ past, especially that of his father, who displayed an unquenchable thirst for women and was ill-prepared for the events that unfolded on his last day.
What makes Almost a Family so attractive despite its flaws—the younger Darnton’s newspaper days slow the narrative, and the shift from memoir to reporting is distracting—is that no matter how many questions you ask or how much research you uncover, the dead can’t be defined. “We spend our time upon the earth and then disappear, and only one-thousandth of what we were lasts,” he writes. “We send all those bottles out into the ocean and so few wash up onshore.”
Darnton’s search for answers isn’t weepy abandonment entertainment; it’s the real deal, and one from which many readers will gain solace.