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The demons in the details

My Father's Secret War A Memoir Lucinda Franks Miramax Books: 312 pp., $24.95

March 18, 2007|Joanna Scott | Joanna Scott is the author of many works of fiction, including the novels "Liberation," "Tourmaline" and "Make Believe" and a new collection of stories, "Everybody Loves Somebody."

JOURNALIST Lucinda Franks has a long, distinguished record of bringing truth to light. Early in her career, she shared a Pulitzer Prize with Thomas Powers for their investigative series on Diana Oughton and the radical antiwar student group Weatherman. Franks began writing for the New York Times in the mid-1970s and has written one novel, "Wild Apples." She brings to her work a characteristic passion for revelatory details -- the kind that are coaxed from reluctant sources and contain important clues.

In her new memoir, "My Father's Secret War," Franks sets out to discover the truth about what might be her most elusive subject ever. The stakes are high -- this isn't just an impersonal assignment that has landed on her desk. This investigation involves her father's hidden past, her family's memories and secrets that turn out to be unexpectedly troubling. Working from her father's often misleading answers to her inquiries, she keeps pressing him for more details about his wartime activities, more intimate confession.

The result is a bold, moving account of a daughter's efforts to understand her father. It's a grueling process for Franks, one that takes many years. But information leads to understanding, and the more information she has about her father's past, the better she feels she understands his self-destructive behavior.

At the opening of the book, in a passage rich with allegorical significance, the author introduces her father with an account of a bicycle crash. Lucinda Franks is a child, soaring down a hill, calling, "Look, Daddy, look!" Her father does look, but he can't stop his daughter from slamming her bike into his. And yet the result of the crash isn't calamitous injury; it is a new recognition for Franks of the gratitude and admiration she feels for her father. Even if he doesn't succeed in stopping the crash, he tries. That's enough for his daughter. With limbs and gears and wheels in a tangle, she thinks of him as a hero.

When we meet Franks' father next, he is an old man tangled up in the wreck of his life. He's living alone. He can't pay his bills or clean his apartment. There are weevils crawling in his box of Wheaties. He's oblivious to the fact that anything is wrong. And when his daughter offers to help him, he merely spouts his favorite mantra: "I can do this myself."

But he's wrong -- he can't manage on his own. Franks pays her father's bills for him; she throws out the infested food and cleans up his apartment. When he grows forgetful, she takes him for a neurological evaluation. When he can't stop drinking, she gathers friends and family, confronting him with his alcoholism.

Franks is exasperated by her father, but she's also baffled. His isolation and defeated attitude don't make sense to her -- this isn't the man who was the hero of her childhood. She begins to suspect that he's hiding something. So as she starts sorting through the mess in his rooms, she takes the time to look with care at certain items. She reads through old letters and faded jottings on scraps of paper. And when she finds an old wooden cigar box, she opens it.

It's in this Pandora's box that Franks discovers important clues to her father's "secret war." Up until this point, she'd respected his privacy and hadn't bothered to press him about his experiences in World War II. But when she finds, along with his Navy pins and foreign money, a silk map, a set of names scrawled on a piece of paper and, most significant, a Nazi cap, Franks begins to wonder if there's more to her father's wartime service than he's ever been willing to admit.

Suspecting that the weight of secrecy is contributing to his despondency, Franks follows the trail of evidence from the cigar box deep into her father's private life. With persistent detective work, she uncovers more unsettling clues. Tucked behind his elaborate collection of pistols and knives, she discovers a silencer. Why, she wonders, did her father own a silencer? Searching through letters in a cedar chest, she finds his old military orders. She keeps digging, searching for pieces to fit into the confounding puzzle of her father's past.

Through a wide-ranging investigation that includes archival research and interviews with other veterans, Franks comes to realize that her father wasn't just an ordinary Navy officer during the war. He was involved in dangerous espionage work. Much of the memoir details the information Franks gathers about secret military operations during and shortly after World War II. She describes the cruel losses and some of the harrowing blunders of the period. It's an illuminating, gripping narrative.

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