About Secret Father
“Splendid . . . [a] dramatically staged political thriller . . . his best novel.” — Boston Globe
Secret Father is a classic story of espionage and love, set in the Soviet sector of Berlin during the summer of 1961 — just weeks before the Wall is erected. Michael, Katharine, and Ulrich are students at an American high school in West Germany who travel to Berlin to join a May Day rally on the Communist side of the divided city. Propelled by high ideals and rebellion against preordained futures, the three stumble into the center of an international incident. The teens are taken into custody by the East German secret police, the notorious Stasi. In their wake they draw Paul, Michael’s father, and Charlotte, Ulrich’s mother, into a dangerous gamble to save the children’s lives.
A novel with a series of moral twists and secret pasts worthy of Graham Greene, Secret Father is a tragedy of strained relations — between East and West, between a man and a woman, between parent and child. Carroll tells an unforgettable story that illuminates a key moment in history with the passions of two generations who lived it, and shows how differently Americans and Europeans saw (and continue to see) the world.
“A gripping tale of deceit and loyalty, passion and despair, revenge and love. The psychological undercurrents are as charged as the Cold War drama.” — People
“An uncommonly intelligent espionage story, written with flair and . . . seductive pacing.” — Seattle Times
“The story’s setting is political, its pacing that of a thriller, but the memories are often personal — of widowhood, fatherhood, first love, late love and youthful folly . . . Carroll distances himself from the run-of-the-mill spy novel.” — New York Times Book Review
“Persuasively detailed, psychologically intricate.” — Los Angeles Times Book Review
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. Among many other acclaimed works, Carroll is the author of the New York Times bestseller Constantine’s Sword. 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. His nine previous novels include Mortal Friends (1978), Prince of Peace (1984), and The City Below, a New York Times Notable Book of 1994. 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.
1. Critics have praised James Carroll’s ability to vividly capture the atmosphere of Cold War Berlin. How does he impart a sense of the tension of the times? What scenes or settings did you find particularly memorable?
2. How does this work compare to other spy novels you’ve read? How does Secret Father both fit and diverge from the standard definition of a spy novel?
3. In many complex and subtle ways, this is a novel of fathers and sons, about the legacy one generation leaves to the next, and about the gift and the burden of that legacy. How do Michael and Ulrich each cope with their legacies?
4. Carroll’s narrators tell the story of May Day 1961 from a distance of nearly thirty years. Given this flashback structure, how does Carroll build and maintain suspense? How does he foreshadow events to come? Were you able to guess each character’s fate? How does the novel’s structure affect your anticipation of the scene at the book’s end?
5. Secret Father reveals the drama of history as the sum of countless choices by fallible, fragile individuals. How do small actions set great events in motion in the novel?
6. When Michael takes up the story, he notes, “That surface enemies were subtle partners in maintaining what is necessary for peace is one of the great untold stories of the Cold War.” In what ways does Secret Father tell this surprising story? How were both Paul and Michael able to observe this truth firsthand?
7. At first glance, Michael and Ulrich seem unlikely friends. What forms the basis of their friendship, and how does Carroll delve into the psychology of that friendship? How do their personalities complement each other? Whom would you consider the stronger person?
8. Much of the action of Secret Father is set in the early 1960s, but events of World War II pervade the novel. How do the lasting scars of that war stretch across the decades?
9. The epigraph of Secret Father is a line from Dostoyevsky: “Real love, compared to fantasy, is a harsh and dreadful thing.” The line is restated in the novel, once by Charlotte and later echoed by Paul. Why does this line strike such a chord with these characters? How do the events of the book support this statement? Do you agree with Dostoyevsky?
The following books may be of interest to readers of Secret Father.
The City Below by James Carroll
Prince of Peace by James Carroll
The Weather in Berlin by Ward Just