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Book Review: A Life’s Work: Fathers and Sons by Ben and Quinn Bradlee

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Although the memoir, A Life’s Work: Fathers and Sons, is attributed to famed editor of the Washington Post Ben Bradlee and his son Quinn with observations by Sally Quinn, suggesting a lesser contribution on her part, the little book is clearly a collaborative effort of the whole family. Of course, the focus of the book is on the relationships between fathers and sons, Ben and his father, Quinn and Ben, and though quite obviously neither father nor son, mother Quinn does manage to add her own perspective and insight on that relationship. Besides, since each writer’s contributions are introduced by name, the maternal “observations” attributed to Sally would seem to bulk at least as large as those of the men.

The book begins with Ben’s memories of his father, an all American football player at Harvard and a successful banker — successful, that is, until the great Depression. That calamity left him, as it did many others, with little choice but to do whatever he could to support his family. What Ben seems to remember from that time is how his father did what it took, without complaint and never acting like a martyr. Pride never stood in is way, and even as Bradlee describes it, the family seemed to manage fairly well, better than most under the circumstances. His father did find a way to get them into private schools. They did find a comfortable home out in the country, even if his father had to function as caretaker. The family may not have lived like bankers; still, they don’t seem to have suffered the deprivations many other families suffered.

There is a lesson here. Play the hand you’re dealt as best you can. This is a lesson that stands you in good stead when you discover that the son born to you late in life has a dangerous heart problem and suffers from a learning disability. Indeed, the book is filled with such lessons, some implicit like this one, some baldly explicit. His father’s support for his gay son despite their differing values shows him that fathers and sons don’t need to have everything in common to love one another, a lesson his son reiterates later in the book.

If his father and his brother had little in common, this was not the case for Ben and his father. His father loved to work outdoors in the woods, and he passed that passion onto Ben. Even as a boy he worked with his father hacking off dead limbs, cutting away at the brush, manning one end of a two-man saw. He learned to start out each day with a project, and make sure that it isn’t done in a “half-assed” fashion.” Finish what you start. The passion his father passed onto him, he passed on to his son. Instead of a two man saw, the tool of choice is now the chain saw. But there is nothing better than clearing a tree that may be blocking the view from their Maryland getaway, even if in the end it might have been a better idea to leave it where it was. There is nothing like a chain saw for father, son bonding, and when Sally gets her own battery operated ladies’ model, there is bonding for the whole family.

Sometimes we get two or three versions of the same story. Ben buys a truck load of azaleas despite Sally’s objections. Ben cuts down a willow tree he thinks is dying, even though Quinn thinks they should give it some time, and Sally loves it. Ben has to call the local fire department to help out when his burn pile fire gets out of control, twice. Perspective is everything. Sally describes her terrifying fear when Ben has an accident with his chain saw; Ben is much more casual about it, despite admitting his error. There may be different points of view, but in the end these differences never seem to escalate into quarrelsomeness. If there are quarrels and fights, they are rarely dwelled upon. This is a happy book: depressed economy, learning disability, old age, you work your way through it and don’t complain.

And in the end that is a problem. Too often it reads like a saccharine movie of the week, and, as a reader, I would expect more from a grizzled newspaper editor and a star reporter. I’d hope for a little more grit. Everything is too Leave it to Beaver. My own preference is for something like Christopher Buckley’s ode to his mother and father, Losing Mum and Pup, or Philip Roth’s Patrimony.

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About Jack Goodstein