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James Carroll. Secret Father.

James Carroll Secret Father. Boston. Houghton Mifflin. 2003. 344 pages. $25. ISBN 0-618-15284-9

JAMES CARROLL'S Secret Father is about three teenagers, children of American parents in occupied West Germany, who decide to go to Berlin to see the massive May Day parade the East Germans would hold. This was the fateful year of 1961 when, a few months later, the infamous wall would go up. Volatile though the political circumstances were, their trip would have been perfectly fine had it not been for the fact that one of the three--"Rick" or, really, Ulrich--is actually a German boy who's been adopted by a high-ranking American officer ("secretly" the chief American intelligence officer there) who'd married the boy's German mother. That's reason enough for the Stasi and KGB to be interested in him, but then there's also his real (another "secret") father who, though long dead, still casts a shadow, possibly a Nazi one.

As a consequence, the trio's in trouble once in East Berlin, and getting them out of it draws Rick's mother (the adoptive father's "secret" status prevents him front intervening officially) and the father of the other boy into deepening intrigue and more. One of Carroll's clever devices is to have the story told by this other boy, Michael, and his father, Paul, so that we get a nice interlacing of perspectives. The other member of the trio is Kit, formerly Pick's girlfriend, who comes closer to Michael as the story progresses.

Another gratifying narrative device used by Carroll is a dual time perspective the story, then, as recollected by Michael and his father, and its updating to the present. Without revealing too much, it can be said that the kids all survived and thrived, with Rick having made his contribution to the German obligation to "mastering the past" as we learn at their middle-aged reunion shortly after the demise of the wall.

Those are some of the really satisfying features of the novel. Less satisfying are some others that seem not to contribute to the narrative. Why Michael's mother had to die in a car accident--except to explain why he might have had to join his father in Germany-is hard to understand. Why Michael is afflicted with polio and must use leg braces and a crutch likewise doesn't seem to make a point.

Then, too, for a novel with a historical framework, coming from a writer who's written historical studies, one would not expect some of the factual infidelities Carroll commits. To give just a couple of examples, :t961 certainly wasn't the year of the Beatles, nor, more mundanely, were automatic transmissions new then, having been common for many years. This sort of failure to check his facts (never mind his German, which is almost always wrung) undermines his narrative credibility.

Nevertheless, there's an engaging story here, with a "coming-of-age" element as well as classic Cold War intrigue, and there's a good political expose of how the wall satisfied both East and West at the time (rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding). And while this is known to the specialist, it's good to have it out in popular form. But perhaps Carroll has gone a bit overboard on the popular front by ideologically romanticizing the causes of the wall's demise instead of reminding us of the almost absurdly bureaucratic blunder that permitted its breach--at least that's not another careless error like his reference to the "red flag of the DDR."

Ulf Zimmermann

Kennesaw State University
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Author:Zimmermann, Ulf
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 2004
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