In Black’s epistolary novel, 62-year-old Jacob is dying of cancer. Regretful, isolated and finally able to admit the harm his condemnation has caused Isaac, he writes a series of letters for his alienated son to find upon his death. The result is so much more than a father’s plea for forgiveness. It’s a historical account of the Black struggle in America. It’s a detailed rendering of the interior of Jacob’s character. And it’s an evolving portrait of a father whose willingness to expand his definition of a “man” may have come too late.
“Love wasn’t a requirement of men in my day,” Jacob confesses in his opening letter, and love remains a consistent theme throughout the narrative: How to show love, how to receive love and whom a person is allowed to love.
Beginning with his formative years, Jacob recounts his life story in the letters. He was raised on a farm in 1940s Arkansas by his grandfather, the son of parents who had been enslaved. The acceptable way to show love in Jacob’s world was through respect, not affection. It was a survival mechanism in an environment where white disapproval could lead to destruction. A man had to teach his offspring to be unbreakable. Children worked like adults and were beaten for minor infractions. “Feelings were irrelevant. They had to be. There was no time in our stressful lives for emotions.”
In adulthood, Jacob fell in love with Rachel, an educated city girl. His move to Kansas City eased him into a more comfortable existence. The young couple married, and Isaac was born on what Jacob considers the happiest day of his life. Full of hope and pride, Jacob muses that he “spent hours wondering what kind of boy you’d be, who you’d look like, what you’d laugh about … But more, I hoped you’d love me just because I was your father.”
Sadly, their fracture wasn’t far off. Jacob grew suspicious that his son was “different” early on. Isaac preferred reading and playing the piano to fishing and sports. “After your ninth birthday, I began to force boy things on you … Whenever you cried, I spanked you ...” Rachel was fiercely protective of her son and the couple’s strife over Isaac caused their marriage to erode before it imploded.
No longer living in the home, Jacob continued to show his love through his actions, believing that because he provided, he was still the man of the family. “Men of my day were right because we said we were right. Our word was law and everyone else had to follow it or be punished.”
He acknowledges admonishing Isaac plenty over the years for not living up to his expectations of manhood. Jacob couldn’t move past the “confusion” Isaac confessed to during adolescence or the desire Jacob detected in his son’s eyes when Isaac gazed at another boy. Eventually the emotional distance between father and son widened into a permanent void. Reflecting on this time in the letters, the wise and dying Jacob admits, “it was a strange thing, sitting next to people you love but being unable to love them.”
Jacob recalls a few bonding moments between father and son through the years, however. The miniseries “Roots” anchored them to each other through their shared past and inspired a trip to Arkansas so Jacob could share his family history with Isaac. But more than anything, this excursion revealed how much the two men didn’t know each other.
Because “Don’t Cry for Me” is comprised entirely of Jacob’s letters, Isaac’s perspective is absent. This allows Black to dig into the essence of Jacob and convey not only his sorrow but also an understanding of his dynamics. Ultimately Jacob comes to realize “a man’s son is his truth unadorned. When he can look at him and be proud, his fatherhood is complete.” These words are both heartbreaking and healing because they expose that underneath all the pain and disappointment resides an overflowing cistern of love.
Jacob’s confessions and misguided reactions elicit frustration in the reader, but ultimately he redeems himself. By opening the heart of a dying father, Black has articulated the mea culpa any child who has suffered paternal rejection craves to receive.
“Don’t Cry for Me”
by Daniel Black
Hanover Square Press
301 pages, $26.99