Good Reads: ‘The Shadow Man’

In the years between my father’s death and the point at which my husband and I became parents, Father’s Day was an awkward pause in the calendar. After I was married, it was a bit of a relief to have a father-in-law who could receive happy returns — something to do, at last.

Mind you, Father’s Day was not associated with fond memories of great celebrations. My dad  was prickly about receiving gifts, and uncomfortable at the idea of a Father’s Day to-do. I think in his mind he was always supposed to be the provider, and he disliked being provided for. It raises interesting questions about how he might have dealt with (or not dealt with) the challenges of aging, but it didn’t come up because he was 59 when he died of a heart attack, leaving questions like that unanswered.

A haunting search in the archives.

One daughter with many unanswered questions about her father is the novelist Mary Gordon, whose father died when she was seven. It’s fair to say this was a defining event in Gordon’s life — probably the defining event — and she explores her landscape of loss in a beautifully written 1996 memoir, The Shadow Man.

Gordon’s book will strike a chord of empathy for many adult children who rediscover their parents as fellow humans, rather than the all-knowing beings called Mommy and Daddy. In Gordon’s case, things become very strange very fast as she begins to explore her father’s story as a researcher, not just an adoring daughter.

Family stories set in stone begin to crumble and re-assemble themselves. Gordon’s father, David, was a brilliant Harvard student whose Jewish family declared him dead after his conversion to Catholicism. One minor problem: The change of religions is the only fact that stands up to further examination. The more Gordon probes, the more she discovers that what she always believed about her father’s identity was a carefully constructed characterization, not a real person. (He wasn’t even named David.)

As for discovering the real person behind the stories, Gordon is only partly successful. Genealogy research comes into play in a long, fascinating section, “Tracking My Father: In the Archives.” Aided by a skillful genealogist, Gordon tries to trace her father’s footsteps in his Ohio hometown, where she discovers that the “Harvard student” actually dropped out of school in his teens to work for the railroad. The more facts she uncovers, the more bewildering the picture becomes. Sadly, Gordon’s mother, struggling with advanced Alzheimer’s, cannot provide any answers, either.

I have always loved this book, re-reading it to savor the lovely writing, but also to reflect on it as a cautionary tale. Genealogy is often a quest for connection, and on many levels, it succeeds in gratifying ways. But there are so many limits to what we can truly know with our research. Gordon’s is an extreme case, but an illuminating one.


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