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Six highly gift-worthy memoirs about — and for — dads

Philip Roth never had children, but he wrote an indelible tribute to his own dad, "Patrimony."
(Nancy Crampton / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

If Mother’s Day is run by Big Florist, then Father’s Day is the traditional break-even weekend for every book ever written about World War II. But not every dad is cut from the same cloth, nor is every father-child relationship. The six memoirs below are all about fathers, yet each stands out for taking on broader themes. Send them to Dad or save them for yourself — or, better yet, read them together at a safe distance.

A book jacket for Sheryll Cashin's "The Agitator's Daughter." Credit: PublicAffairs
(PublicAffairs)

The Agitator’s Daughter: A Memoir of Four Generations of One Extraordinary African-American Family


Sheryll Cashin

During times of civil disobedience, “agitator” gets thrown around as a pejorative, but the actual definition is of a person who stirs others to upset the status quo. John L. Cashin was one such man. In the late 1960s, he founded the splinter National Democratic Party of Alabama, and in 1970 he ran unsuccessfully for governor against segregationist George Wallace. The Cashin family was involved in radical causes going back to Reconstruction, but John’s civil rights activities would come to haunt the family. Sheryll Cashin recounts how her father’s hounding by the FBI and IRS led to his downfall, jail time and a family in ruins. It’s a timely reminder of the often painful personal cost of fighting for mass social justice.

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"The Adventurer's Son," by Roman Dial.
(HarperCollins)

The Adventurer’s Son


Roman Dial

Biology and math professor Roman Dial is best known as an Alaskan explorer, the man who wrote the definitive guide to packrafting — using a small, light, portable boat to cross insane rivers in the state’s uninhabited interior. He passed his love of exploration to his son Cody, who at age 27 went missing in a Costa Rican jungle. Dial and his wife, Peggy, spent the next two years battling bureaucracies and nature, chasing down leads of drug dealing and kidnapping, all in an ill-fated quest to find their son alive. His story of being torn between “pain and relief,” on learning the truth, is a heartbreaking tribute to a chip off the old adventurer’s block.

Braving It: A Father, a Daughter, and an Unforgettable Journey Into the Alaskan Wild


James Campbell

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Stories of outdoor feats are mandatory for Father’s Day, so indulge me in recommending another Alaskan adventure yarn — more uplifting but still unnerving. James Campbell tells of three trips he took with teenage daughter Aidan to the parts of Alaska that tourists never see. The final voyage comes the summer before she leaves home: a backpacking excursion over the Brooks Range followed by a canoe trip on the mighty Hulahula River to the Arctic Ocean, home to polar bears, Dall sheep, golden eagles and not much else. The memoir is thrilling and harrowing in equal measure, a meditation on what it means for a child to grow up and the parental risk tolerance required to help her along.

A book jacket for "Inheritance," by Dani Shapiro. Credit: Anchor
(Anchor)

Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love


Dani Shapiro

It’s a tale as old as time: A blond, blue-eyed woman raised as an Orthodox Jew finds out at 56 that her beloved stockbroker father, who died in a car crash more than 20 years earlier, was not her biological dad at all, confirming the suspicions of everyone around her (including, oddly, Jared Kushner’s grandparents) that she isn’t fully Jewish. The results of a mail-order DNA test send Shapiro off with questions ranging from existential — Who am I? — to bizarre — How do you mix sperm? “Inheritance” is more than the unraveling of familial secrets; it’s a probing look at what identity means at a time when anyone can open Pandora’s genealogy box.

Only Son


John Johnson

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New Yorkers of a certain age will remember John Johnson, a WNBC news reporter and anchor who covered major events from the Attica uprising to the O.J. Simpson trial. Johnson was raised in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, the only child of an abusive father and an alcoholic mother. His mother died at the height of his television career, but when his father was stricken with lung cancer, he walked away from a $3-million contract and never looked back. The intense love-hate relationship between Johnson and his parents will be familiar to anyone who grew up treading water in a sea of dysfunction. We should all find the level of peace that Johnson ultimately attains.

"Patrimony," by Philip Roth.
(Vintage)

Patrimony: A True Story


Philip Roth

For many of us in our middle age, a dying father turns a simple beer-and-barbecue afternoon into a day of reflection and inner turmoil, especially if the father can’t make it. In 1991, Philip Roth wrote a weighty, surprisingly tender homage to his father. It’s an unvarnished diary of the years Herman Roth battles a brain tumor. Philip tries to navigate the baffling world of healthcare on behalf of his obstinate father while keeping their spirits up through a shared affection for the New York Mets (not an easy feat). In “Patrimony,” a great novelist delivers a tough, honest, surprising and beautiful eulogy to his 86-year-old father.

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(Love you, Dad.)


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