Almost A Family : A Memoir

  • John Darnton
  • Knopf
  • 368 pp.

The myths and realities shaping one family fuel this compelling memoir by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John Darnton.

Reviewed by Keith Donohue

Over the course of a 40-year career with the New York Times, John Darnton reported on many of the great stories of his generation from the Black Panther trials to the collapse of New York’s finances. In 1976 he went abroad as a foreign correspondent, first to Africa where he covered the fall of Idi Amin in Uganda and later to Eastern Europe where he reported on the rise of Solidarity in Poland and received the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for Journalism. He is also the author of five novels, including Neanderthal, a bestseller, and The Darwin Conspiracy. He and his wife, also a novelist, raised three children. His older brother, Robert, enjoyed a highly successful career in academia as a Rhodes scholar and MacArthur Fellow, an expert on French history, and author of a dozen scholarly books; he is now director of the Harvard University Library, where he is leading a national effort to create the Digital Public Library of America.

By any measure, the Darnton brothers are a singular American success story. But it is no small miracle that they have made such a life for themselves, for theirs was a childhood marred by two major catastrophes that may have defeated less stalwart souls.

First there was a death in the family. Early on the morning of October 18, 1942, Byron “Barney” Darnton, a correspondent for the New York Times, was killed aboard a U.S. combat boat off the coast of New Guinea when a piece of shrapnel struck him in the head. Barney left behind a wife and two young sons, Robert aged two-and-a-half and John aged 11 months. Nearly 70 years later, the younger son has written of the search for the father he never knew.

John Darnton’s gripping new memoir Almost a Family circles round the sudden and unexpected death. The boys, of course, were too young to remember their father and had to reconstruct the man. As Darnton writes, “Not having a father present didn’t mean not having a father. There wasn’t just an absence in my life. There was the presence of an absence, and that presence, along with snippets of information and my mother’s recollections and bits of writing that came my way, filled my imagination. They led me, eventually, to romanticize his life and to mythologize him.” The myth of Barney Darnton comes under scrutiny in his son’s book, and like all myth, it is a mixture of fact and imagination, reality and wishful thinking.

The second great catastrophe in their lives was the long, slow struggle and collapse of their mother. Like the rest of the Darntons, Eleanor Choate “Tootie” Darnton was a writer and a journalist, though she suffered through the double standard for women journalists in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Determined to earn a living, she tried her hand at a number of projects and jobs. Her own mythologizing memoir The Children Grew was published in 1954, but it failed to gain an audience, and she made a vainglorious but doomed attempt at running a syndicate for “women’s news.” Running through Almost a Family is Tootie’s story – the demands of being a single mother, the loneliness of widowhood, and her inability to keep secret from her sons the reasons behind her “grogginess” and despair. As much as Barney hovers above the action, Tootie is at the emotional core, and it is her ultimate triumph that makes this such an affecting memoir.

The parents are the richest characters in the book, despite a long and interesting account of John’s decades as a reporter. Almost a Family seems primarily an accounting of the difficult relationship of child and parent.

Darnton writes with assurance, and the book is structured like a good novel, filled with unexpected twists and turns, enlivened by deft portraits not only of the principals, but of the many characters populating the newspaper world of a bygone era. Meticulously researched, the scenes are vivid and often quietly moving, none more so than the finale.

John makes a pilgrimage to New Guinea to see firsthand the scene of Barney’s death, where the memoir begins and ends. He tries to make sense not only of the incident that killed his father, but of the totality of his life. Like any good reporter, John shows us what he has seen and tries to explain what it means: the myth the family built enabled them all to go on, to seek after truth, and to write. “What a difference,” he writes, “that one little shiver of shrapnel meant to our lives – my mother’s life, my brother’s, mine.” Upon such chance, worlds revolve.

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Keith Donohue is the author of the novels The Stolen Child (Nan Talese/Doubleday 2006), Angels of Destruction (Crown, 2009), and Centuries of June (forthcoming, Crown, June 2011). Donohue is the Director of Communications for the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the grant-making arm of the National Archives in Washington, DC.  He also has taught and lectured on writing and literature at several colleges and universities.

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