Acclaimed historian Thomas Fleming has written popular histories of the Revolutionary War, several controversial re-examinations of such hallowed 20th century figures as Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt and best-selling historical novels.
No one, however, could have guessed that his personal history, as told in "Mysteries of My Father," would provide the material for arguably his most gripping and powerful work.
"New Jersey" and "corruption" go together like "hot fudge" and "sundae." The phrase recalls cliched images of fat, cigar-smoking pols raking in the big bucks and stealing from the poor.
Fleming's family memoir takes an inside look at the ultimate political machine run by Jersey City Mayor Frank Hague, a boss who had presidents coming to him to curry his favor. But the picture is not quite what the tsk-tsk tone of the stereotypical history book would suggest.
Fleming points out that the old-fashioned political machines often were all that certain poor, ethnic communities had to stand up for them.
Like Homer Hickam's "Rocket Boys" (the basis for the movie "October Sky") and Brian McDonald's "My Father's Gun," this is the story of an important subculture going through the pressure cooker of 20th century changes, told by a narrator who is close enough to the action to take an inside look but enough of a nonparticipant to have the distance required for a proper perspective.
Above all, these books tell, at their heart, the universal story of sons struggling to make their way out of their fathers' shadows - very big shadows, in fact, cast by larger-than-life figures.
At the center of "Mysteries" is Thomas "Teddy" Fleming Sr., who fought bravely in the trenches of France during World War I though he had little use for the cause. Irish-Americans at the time had no interest in saving Britain from Germany, and they had legitimate trouble with the argument that Germany was any more expansionist than the country that had occupied the auld sod for centuries.
However, the war would pave the way for two fateful factors of Teddy's life. First, he was away while most young people his age married, and second, his heroic status brought him to the attention of the Irish Democrat political machine that held power in Jersey City.
It was only logical that the city's most eligible bachelor and the most popular single girl would be thrown together by their friends. Kitty Dolan was a pretty socialite who still was available only because her fiance had fallen fatally ill.
What even her friends and family did not realize, however, was that Kitty saw her beau as a ticket out of what she thought of as low Irish life and society.
Like the politicians, Kitty saw the potential in Teddy and how she could use it to her ends. Unlike them, however, Kitty had wholesale changes in mind for her husband, while the political machine gave him a job that perfectly suited his abilities, personality and skills - and immersed him in the life that Kitty so despised.
The war hero and the tragic figure seemed like the perfect couple to the outside world, but there's no loathing like self-loathing, and when Kitty turns it outward, it's breathtaking in its intensity. When their children were old enough to recognize it, they were not merely caught in the crossfire of a contentious marriage, but Kitty also tried to enlist them as combatants.
Fleming presents his parents, warts and all, but also with affection. While showing Kitty as the aggressor, he refuses to take sides, as each person reacted in the exact wrong manner to make amends - perhaps because each was so ill-suited for the other and not prepared to change.
By the time the usually taciturn elder Fleming - then a county sheriff and arguably the second-most powerful man in the nation's most effective political machine - tearfully exclaims to his sons, "You're all I have," the reader's heart will be as broken as if it were his own family's trauma.
"Memories of My Father" shows the inside of ethnic politics, such as how genuine grievances become excuses for corruption though the justification of "It's our turn to get ours now." This manifests itself in vote-stealing (the author personally was responsible for keeping his deceased grandmother on the absentee voter roles for years), heavy-handed patronage and outright theft.
Fleming also takes shots at the notion of "hyphenated Americanism," noting that no matter how much reverence is expressed for the Old Country, after a generation, immigrants invariably become so Americanized as to be completely alien to those in the country they left.
This book has enough subplots for at least another couple of hundred pages. If he had chosen to, Fleming could have serialized his and his family's life like the great memoirist Tobias Wolfe. He takes a hard look at the role of the Catholic Church in the Irish immigrant culture of the time, and the author's Navy experiences during the fall of China undoubtedly could have filled more than just one chapter.
"Mysteries of my Father" is a uniquely American memoir and a story as old as Genesis. As Father's Day approaches, this heartfelt, powerful and ultimately loving book is an ideal gift for the reader on your list.