May 2007

Aysha Somasundaram

nonfiction

My Father's Secret War: A Memoir by Lucinda Franks

Lucinda Franks’s objective in My Father’s Secret War is a difficult and compelling one. She uses her skills as an investigative reporter -- tenacity and a facility for words -- to draw the truth of her father’s legacy from World War II, his bravery and enduring unquiet from sources as disparate as government records, his peers, his lover, mementos, correspondences and her own cobbled-together memories. That Tom Franks was heroic (bearing witness to the unimaginable brutality of the Holocaust, charged with debilitating its purveyors, and returning home as one of the war’s living “casualties”) is unquestionable.

Franks chronicles her own gradual, setback-filled restoration of a fractured father/daughter relationship. Her frustrated love for an elusive, misunderstood father is the preoccupation that ties all of the authorial explorations, incursions and confessions together. The father in question is a deeply private, conflicted veteran, sworn to secrecy as to his covert activities and haunted by them.

Franks does not pretend to possess any impartiality. She writes as a wronged, wounded, resentful and, at times, unkind daughter. Franks’s reconstruction of her father’s history -- also our nation’s history -- starts off as a desperate attempt to redeem a man she idolized as a child but gradually grew to despise the way we do only with the loved ones who devastate and disappoint us. Somewhere in her narration, Franks seems, however, to realize the broader implications of her project; this is particularly evident when she refers to other men -- charged with similar missions during the war -- who are doppelgangers for her father: tortured, remote and, often, alcoholic.

What makes My Father’s Secret War an unusually compelling story of reconciliation is that it may be read as personal narrative, or a tribute to a generation of soldiers, or a meditation on familial ties, or all of these. Words and concepts like “collateral damage” or “sacrifice” defined Tom Franks’s life and consequently that of his young, uncomprehending wife and the daughters they raised in a warring household.

There are seminal moments in My Father’s Secret War, such as Franks’s discovery of wartime correspondences between her parents, that suggest how jaundiced and incomplete our understanding of the people we love invariably is. Throughout the memoir, Franks admits to nursing rage against her father for “destroying their family” and raging at his admission of never having loved her mother. But this, of course, is revealed to be little more than a toxic, if well-preserved and corroborated, chimera.

Franks’s only lament is the brevity of the interlude of mutual love and acceptance before her father’s decline into dementia and ill health. Perhaps My Father’s Secret War is many stories in one -- but especially a cautionary tale that we can only know a parent when we shed our fears, expectations and illusions and forgive their human failings.

My Father’s Secret War: A Memoir by Lucinda Franks
Miramax Books
ISBN: 140135226X
311 pages