James Carroll

"Secret Father"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple AUG 30, 2003)

"An iron curtain ran not just…from the Balkans to Trieste, but between those of us who claimed to be grown and in charge and those [younger people], like your father and my son, who seemed still so unfinished and…vulnerable."


Secret Father by James CarrollTwo families, two sons, and the devastating complications that engulf their lives during one weekend in April, 1961, provide a unique perspective on international gamesmanship in Berlin during the Cold War. Both of these families have been living in West Germany, trying to lead relatively "normal" lives in abnormal times, with their two sons, Michael Montgomery and Rick Healy, best friends, attending the American high school there. Michael's father, Paul, is chief of the Chase International Investment Corporation, a spinoff of Chase Manhattan Bank, while Rick's stepfather (and adoptive father), Maj. Gen. David Healy is in charge of all military espionage in Europe, reporting to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

These are especially tense times in Berlin. The Divided City's blockade by the Soviets and the subsequent, successful Berlin airlift by the Allies is only a dozen years in the past, and border incidents are frequent. The Soviets have recently turned over the governance of their sector, at least nominally, to the East Germans, and, with both Stasi and KGB operating at will, espionage is a major occupation for all the governments with an interest in Berlin. Mass migrations of East German citizens to the West threaten to leave East Germany without the human resources they need to develop the country, while straining the physical resources of the West. The Wall is only days away from construction.

Michael and Rick, like many young people, accept the dangers of their environment as the norm, however. At age seventeen, their biggest rebellions are against their fathers, for various reasons, and they are experimenting with political ideas-- in Rick's case, the idealistic goals of socialism and the philosophy of Marcuse. They decide, along with Katharine Carson, an Army brat, to skip school one Friday and go to East Berlin secretly for the May Day parade and weekend festivities. Taking his stepfather's duffle bag, Rick, along with Michael and Kit, takes off for East Berlin, which turns out to be a far greater learning experience than the young people had expected. The duffle contains some film, and they are arrested, interrogated, and held, their associations with others both in East and West Berlin called into question, and their families terrified by the potential for an international cataclysm.

Carroll's focus on the Montgomery and Healy families creates an emotional context through which the reader can appreciate the trauma of the young people's arrests. Paul Montgomery's marriage to Edie, his son Michael's battle against the crippling effects of polio, and his loss of Edie make him an especially concerned and, possibly, overprotective father. Maj. Gen. Healy, Rick's adoptive father, knows all the dangers inherent in having his son in the hands of the East Berlin authorities. Healy married Charlotte, Rick's mother, after her escape from East Germany in the aftermath of the war, and he has raised Rick since he was six, but his relationship with him has always been tenuous, at best, and he fears this may be at the heart of Rick's decision to go to Berlin. Charlotte, with her particularly traumatic memories of East Berlin at the end of the war, is especially worried about Rick's arrest, for reasons the reader does not discover until the end. When Paul and Charlotte go to Berlin to free the young people, the reader identifies with their fears and empathizes with their determination to stop at nothing to gain their release.

In alternating sections, Paul Montgomery, the father, and Michael Montgomery, the son, each reveal their thoughts and hopes for the future, and as the story unfolds, Carroll creates two generational worlds, each fully drawn and presented as truth. The reader, moving back and forth between the generations, has the advantage both of hindsight regarding the Berlin crisis and insight into all the characters, and the story comes alive in the best narrative tradition. Though the story is melodramatic, Carroll dispels any misgivings the reader might feel about the overly dramatic aspects by making them part of the speaker's own concerns: "What was I making of the melodrama into which I had been conscripted? I had never been a man for mystery novels or spy thrillers," Paul Montgomery tells us, "and if you had told me that I would take seriously a warning of being followed, whispered by a woman with an accent, I would have laughed at you. But that was before mystery had come to define my life…." Right on the reader's side, the reader accepts author as a guide to the extraordinary events and coincidences to come.

With its focus both on the Cold War and on the families it affects, Carroll achieves more universality than one usually expects of the thriller genre, and in his ending he offers a number of new twists. The title, of course, tells us in advance that there is a "secret father" lurking in the background and exerting his influence, both real and psychological. Just knowing this tantalizes the reader with infinite possibilities of plot complications, and though my mind was constantly trying to figure out how the author would use this person in the conclusion, I was completely surprised by the exact nature of the secret his involvement and the eventual resolution. A thoughtful thriller, full of betrayals, threats, murder, and international skullduggery, Secret Father brings the Cold War novel to new life.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 10 review

Read a chapter excerpt from Secret Father at USAToday

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About the Author:

James Carroll was born in Chicago in 1943 and raised in Washington, D.C., where his father, an air force general, served as the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. He attended Georgetown University before entering St. Paul's College, the Paulist Fathers' seminary in Washington, where he graduated with B.A. and M.A. degrees. He was a civil rights worker and community organizer in Washington and New York. In 1969 he was ordained into the priesthood.

He served as Catholic chaplain at Boston University from 1969 to 1974. During those years he published numerous books on religious subjects and a weekly column in the National Catholic Reporter, which earned him awards from the Catholic Press Association and other organizations. He remained active in the antiwar movement until the Vietnam War ended.

Carroll left the priesthood to become a writer. In 1974 he was playwright-in-residence at the Berkshire Theater Festival in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. In 1976 he published his first novel, Madonna Red, which was translated into seven languages. Since then he has published eight additional novels. Carroll writes a weekly op-ed column for the Boston Globe and is an occasional contributor to numerous journals, including The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly. His memoir, An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War that Came Between Us, won several prizes, including the 1996 National Book Award in nonfiction.

Carroll is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and serves on its Committee for International Security Studies. He is a member of the council of PEN/New England, and he served four years as its chair. He has been a Shorenstein Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a Fellow at the Center for the Study of Values in Public Life at the Harvard Divinity School. Carroll is also a trustee of the Boston Public Library and a member of the advisory board of the International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life at Brandeis University.

He lives in Boston with his wife, the novelist Alexandra Marshall, and their two grown children.

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