MEMOIR REVIEW: "My Long Trip Home"

  • Article by: JOSEPH WILLIAMS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 22, 2011 - 11:57 AM

In his memoir, Mark Whitaker focuses not only on his own life, but also on his parents' lives.

Mark Whitaker, author of "My Long Trip Home."

Stop me if you've read this one before: A mixed-race American man destined to shatter an important racial barrier frames his improbable journey through his relationship with his black father -- a brilliant but deeply flawed scholar who abandoned the author as a boy.

But unlike President Obama's groundbreaking "Dreams of My Father," Mark Whitaker's "My Long Trip Home" traces the author's decades-long path to reconciliation with his estranged father as well as his personal evolution toward acceptance of his eclectic heritage.

Though comparisons are inevitable in the age of Obama, Whitaker, a top CNN executive who was Newsweek's first black editor, has a story that's perhaps more exotic than that of the nation's Hawaiian-born, Indonesian-schooled first black president.

Whitaker's mother, an African-born French émigré whose father worked against the Nazis in World War II, arrived in the United States via a social-services wartime boatlift. His father, the handsome eldest son of a stately black couple who ran a successful mortuary in Pittsburgh, became a practicing Quaker after helping integrate a religious work camp early in the civil rights movement. Their paths crossed at Quaker-affiliated Swarthmore College, where Jeanne Theis, a shy young French professor, and Syl Whitaker, a charismatic undergraduate nine years her junior, engaged in a then-scandalous secret romance that led to marriage. Their idealistic union led to son Mark just a few years later.

Syl Whitaker's studies took the young family abroad to Europe and Africa before they settled into academia back in the States, where he was considered a rising star among Africa scholars. But there were dark clouds on the horizon: A restless Syl moved the family to California shortly after the birth of their second son, then -- unwilling and unable to fight the demons that ruined his own father -- divorced his ingénue wife, pushing the family to the brink of destitution.

In lean, magazine-style prose bolstered by reporting along with personal recall, Mark Whitaker takes a wide-angle view of the memoir form, integrating much of his parents' story with his own, which includes a fish-out-of-water year living with his extended family in northern France as an adolescent; cutting his journalistic teeth at the highly competitive Harvard Crimson; a meteoric rise at Newsweek; a marriage-driven conversion to Judaism; and balancing parenthood with a demanding career.

And although race and identity are recurring themes in his 357-page narrative, they largely remain in the background against Whitaker's central objective: comparing his father's tragic life with his own to determine, or refute, the universal sins-of-the-father theory.

"In a perverse way," he writes, "I realized he had done me a favor by offering so many cautionary tales about how not to behave. But I saw he also gave me a priceless gift: the model of a black man who was proud of his identity but determined not to be confined by it."

Joseph Williams, a former editor at the Star Tribune, is White House correspondent for Politico.

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    By: Mark Whitaker.

    Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 357 pages, $25.99.

    Review: Whitaker's prose is lean and strong, and while race is certainly a central theme in his story, he's more interested in exploring the relationship between father and son.

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