Almost a Family: A Memoir
by John Darnton
Knopf, 348 pp., $27.95
An important thing to know about memoirs is that although there are a lot of them already, there will soon be more. Seventy-six million baby boomers are reaching retirement age. Many of us own computers, and we find ourselves fascinating. Perhaps the best way to regard the future deluge is to take a glass-half-full approach and assume that certain of these oncoming memoirs will be good. You have to concentrate on the good ones, as you would on a friendly face in a crowd, and not let the others distract you. Almost a Family, John Darnton’s memoir of his life as the son of a New York Times correspondent killed in World War II, is a good one—exciting, deeply felt, evocative of past worlds and times, and full of first-rate reporting. Because his birth preceded the earliest of the baby boomers by a few years, Darnton comes ahead of the rush; that he has a great story to tell is another advantage.
Having written a book about my own family I know that the reader’s first question is “Why should I care about your family?” The author needs to get up a head of steam right at the start to override that, and Darnton does. On page three his father, Byron “Barney” Darnton, a veteran correspondent for the Times, records the author’s birth with a note in the margins of Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, the book he is reading in the hospital waiting room. The date is November 20, 1941. Two and a half weeks later the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. Though Barney is forty-four, he gets himself an overseas assignment, sails to Australia, flies to New Guinea, and joins a small force of US soldiers on two antiquated trawlers making an amphibious counteroffensive against the Japanese. While the troops wait offshore in a bay near the landing site, a single plane appears, drops several bombs, and leaves. Barney and one other man are killed. We are on page nineteen.
The author’s mother, taking care of the new baby and his three-year-old brother, Bob, in the family’s home in Connecticut, is washing dishes at the moment of Barney’s death. She has a sudden sense that it has occurred. The next day the army notifies her. President Roosevelt sends her a personal letter of condolence. Arthur Sulzberger, the publisher of the Times, and his wife, Iphigene, drive to Westport to see her. Five planes fly over the house in formation and dip their wings. The next year, a new merchant ship built to carry war supplies to Europe is named for Barney. His wife and the two boys go to the shipyard in Baltimore and she smashes a bottle against the ship’s bow, christening it the Byron Darnton. Bob, by now four, writes “BoB” on the hull …