Last month while curating my list of February book releases, I discovered Don’t Cry for Me by Daniel Black and quickly put it on hold at the library. Here’s what I thought of it!
In Don’t Cry for Me, a dying father writes a letter to his gay son attempting to reconcile after a lifetime of emotional distance. Through Jacob’s voice, the reader (and presumably, his son Isaac) learns about Jacob’s childhood in rural Arkansas as he was raised by his grandparents, and the consequent values instilled in him. As he recounts, we gain insight into how he formed his perspective on family, manhood, and the way he endured. Told in a personal, confessional, and plain-speaking voice, Jacob reveals what shaped him into the father he became to Isaac—-for better, and often for worse.
The nature of the narration lent itself well to a brisk reading experience. As Jacob’s voice is conversational and direct, it was easy to keep going chapter to chapter without setting the book down, and I finished it within 24 hours of beginning it.
The subject matter can be difficult, though. It is a very heartbreaking novel but also redemptive, as Jacob uses the last of his energy to reconcile with his estranged son. Quite early in the book, Jacob shares with Isaac a very shocking event that transpired during his childhood, and it quite caught me off guard. This is probably the most disturbing event to occur in the novel, but it happens around page 40.
Readers with strained parental relationships may especially feel seen or even triggered by this novel. Author Daniel Black, as mentioned in his author’s note preface, has a very personal stake in sharing this story, and this comes across with the amount of care he put into humanizing the narrator despite his imperfections.
While I was very moved by this novel, I also wish we could have read letters from Isaac, too. The story would have felt better-rounded and impactful to read their voices side-by-side, as Isaac is for most of the novel an elusive character to the reader. However, I also think the uncertainty of Isaac’s perspective and situation in life adds to the tragic nature of the story. Like Jacob, we have no idea where Isaac is in the world, and so by looking through only Jacob’s eyes, we must only align ourselves more with him, forcing us to truly sit inside his experience and humanize his limited perspective. Though we may be quick to judge or vilify those who hold his beliefs, this novel makes the case that our childhood very much impresses upon our developed worldview, and that redemption is possible at any age. Even those who are marginalized in their own ways (like Jacob is for his race) may in turn develop prejudice towards other marginalized groups (like Isaac and his queer sexuality).
I do appreciate how this book gives humanity and complexity to individuals whose perspectives it is often easy to vilify–that is, those who adhere to traditional ideas of toxic masculinity and homophobia. While presently it is sometimes hard to accept cheap excuses like, “That’s just how we did it back then,” it is important for us to understand that, to a certain extent, we are highly affected by the systems and social dynamics in which we were raised. The rapid and unwavering snap judgments we make of others is harmfully polarizing, and this novel attempts to unwind that. Jacob asks for forgiveness and love from his son, having too late realized Isaac’s inherent value, and attempts to convey the depth of his commitment to his family in a medium that is new for him. Having never had much experience verbalizing his feelings, Jacob now has limited time to say all that has been weighing on his heart for sixty years.
As Jacob writes, not as an excuse but as an explanation and a confession, “Truth is, the world changed faster than I could” (p. 17). Many readers will feel moved by his story.
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