A George Polk Award– and Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist skillfully investigates the history of his family, recovering the life of the father he never knew.
Near the end of this affecting memoir, veteran New York Times correspondent Darnton (Black and White and Dead All Over, 2008, etc.) marvels at the “difference that one little sliver of shrapnel meant to our lives.” He’s referring first to the bomb fragment that killed his father, NYT correspondent Barney Darnton, during World War II, and second to his mother “Tootie,” brother Bob and himself, only 11 months old when Barney died. Not until 60 years later, after decades of romanticizing and mythologizing his father, did John set out to discover just who Barney really was. The man he unearths is far different from the idealized figure in his head, the entire excavation complicated by the layers of silence or fabrication Tootie supplied her boys as she buckled under the pressures of single-parenting, moving to a succession of increasingly modest homes and assuming a string of important and then less-worthy jobs, losing them not to the “grogginess” she complained of, but rather to alcoholism. Darnton chronicles how he and his brother grew and coped, but mostly he focuses on his parents, and especially the search for Barney. From notebooks, clip files, letters and government archives, the author assembles a picture of his father, and he learns even more from numerous interviews with his parents’ colleagues, friends and family members. He journeys across America, to an island off Scotland and to the New Guinea beach where Barney’s corpse was canoed ashore—he interviews the soldier horrified by handling that bloody detail and a native, only six at the time, who witnessed the aerial attack—following leads as far as possible, seeking only the truth. The facts he uncovers—about his father’s character, about the incident that killed him, about his parents’ meeting—are often uncomfortable, but, thirsty for honest answers, he faithfully reports what he learns.
Exquisitely paced, masterful storytelling.