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Mysteries of My Father Hardcover – April 1, 2005

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Wiley; 1 edition (April 1, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0471655155
  • ISBN-13: 978-0471655152
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.1 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #275,144 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

We were always a confessional people, we Irish, but only as long as the listener was a priest in the box or a pal nodding after a night of knocking back pints. We didn't tell every Tom, Dick or Mick our troubles. It wasn't done.Historians and scholars may pull me up short on this, but it seems to me that until recently, perhaps the last 30 years or so, there was a great paucity of memoir in the Irish and Irish-American world. Keep your troubles behind the lace curtain, darling, or the neighbors will be talking. There was Eugene O'Neill, of course, but he was an aberration.It's changing. The Irish-Americans are looking back and getting it down on paper. They're a different breed, the Irish-Americans, not to be confused with the Irish Back Home.You'll discover those differences in Thomas Fleming's majestic new book, Mysteries of My Father, a book in which there are enough plots and themes for a dozen novels. There is the marriage of Fleming's father, Teddy, to his mother, Kitty. They are a classic, almost stereotypical, pair: he the ill-educated tough ward politician aware of his shortcomings, she the gentle, well-educated beauty with social aspirations. You may not have much patience with Kitty. She despises Teddy's political world, especially the man at the top in Jersey City, Frank Hague. She simply doesn't understand that, for many Irish in those days, that was the way you had to go. You helped your own, you found them jobs, you made sure they voted and you rewarded them. You made your way with your fists.No, Kitty didn't understand. She looked along other avenues and saw "the quality" secure in their snobbery. That was the family tragedy, though the tragedy was mostly Teddy's.What an extraordinary man—tough enough, brave enough, smart enough to earn a battlefield commission. Personable enough to make an impression on Frank Hague.The ingredients of this memoir are particularly Irish-American. The setting is Jersey City, then an Irish (American) political powerhouse ruled by Hague. You may think "Ah, yes, the usual Irish political machine," but Fleming dismisses the notion of something well-oiled and running smoothly. What he saw around Frank Hague was essentially a ragtag army of hangers-on and opportunists.Teddy gives lip service to the church, but his faith goes fist deep. He will bow to monsignors and bishops but it's all political. In families like the Flemings, as in most Irish-American families, it is the women who keep the faith alive.Irishness is an ingredient of the book, but not as the Irish Back Home would understand it. There is a reference to the Dolan family (Kitty was a Dolan) and their relationship with the Old Country. "Seldom if ever was Ireland mentioned in the Dolan household as a source of anger and sorrow. To Tom Dolan, the mother country was not even a memory.... Instead, the Dolans felt a subtle discomfort about their Irish Catholic name in mostly Protestant uptown Jersey City."This book is mainly a chronicle of love—repressed, frustrated, lost, finally exploding, as Thomas Fleming leads us skillfully from the first breathless moments between Teddy and Kitty through the deterioration of their marriage to a later time when the son begins to understand his father's volcanic love.Andrew Greeley once wrote of a scholar going to Washington looking for funds to introduce courses on the Irish-American experience. The Washington official said, "No. The Irish don't count anymore."Not on the political scene, perhaps, but watch out for an Irish-American literature that digs deep, a literature with Thomas Fleming as standard bearer. This, for the historian, novelist and playwright, is still, I think, virgin territory. There's gold here. McCourt's Teacher Man, a memoir of this 30 years of teaching in New York City schools, will be published by Scriber in the fall.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


* ""Mysteries of My Father is a rich book. Rich in Fleming’s textured description of Jersey City politics. Rich in wonderful personal anecdotes (Frank Hague’s last hurrah on a platform amid the surging, rebellious voters of the Second Ward is the stuff of epic poetry). Rich in sympathetic understanding of Teddy and Kitty and of their tempestuous marriage. Rich in honest evocation of ‘the morally grey world of Hudson County politics.’ And rich in its power to bring alive the once vital, now vanished world of the big-city Irish-American political machine… A moving, masterly, forgiving remembrance."" (Commonwealth Magazine)

Although a paternal portrait may be his primary aim, Thomas Fleming's subtitle promises, more broadly, ""an Irish-American memoir."" For some of us, that's a worrisome vow, portending crapulous fathers who imbibe paychecks, pious wives who berate husbands for same and hordes of children wailing in squalor. True to form, the late-19th-century Jersey City to which Mr. Fleming's grandparents migrated was home to these auld Gaelic clichés. What adds the American to the Irish in this story, though, is its celebration not merely of stumbling and wallowing but of rebelling and ruling.
Following an eminent career as a writer of both history and fiction, Mr. Fleming has gone rummaging in his own family archives to produce Mysteries of My Father, a memoir of his father's fight to emerge from corrupting poverty with some part of his soul unbruised. And quite a scrap it was.
From his earliest (if never exactly tender) years, Teddy Fleming slugged his way out of obligations and into opportunities. One of his earliest bouts involved menacing a schoolmate into serving as his proxy for mandatory weekday Mass so that Teddy could earn money for his family as a newsie in Manhattan, a situation he had to secure and maintain with yet more hand-to-hand persuasion. As he matured, Fleming the elder punched, shoved and occasionally even boxed his way through the ranks of the 312th Regiment in World War I and the Jersey City Democratic organization during the Depression.
The civilizing influence of the author's mother, Kitty Dolan, went a long way toward keeping the Fleming household free from alcohol, domestic violence and lawless grammar. Eventually, though, her Catholic aspirations to Protestant gentility and heavy-handed elocution lessons failed to soothe her brute of a husband. In fact, the rigorous application of her snobbery to his rough patches wore away only the affection from their marriage, leaving bare an estrangement that was -- and continues to be -- a source of anguish for the author.
Teddy Fleming enjoyed many decades as the muscle in Mayor Frank Hague's Jersey City machine but, at the end, his triumphs withered. Following Kitty's ""unconscious suicide,"" in which she ignored obvious warnings of breast cancer until she succumbed to it, Teddy Fleming lost his political puissance and, ultimately, all the strength he once possessed to continue his contest with life.
Teddy's son eventually left Jersey City to traverse the broad atlas of American history in more than a dozen books (e.g., ""Liberty! The American Revolution,"" ""Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Future of America"" and ""The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I""). His talent for capturing the details of social and political history shines through in this memoir, particularly in the passages that give context to Teddy Fleming's rise to leader of the Sixth Ward, chairman of the Board of Chosen Freeholders, judge of the Second Criminal Court and sheriff of Hudson County. On these pages, Mr. Fleming evokes Edmund Morris's portrait of Teddy Roosevelt's political apprenticeship in ""Theodore Rex.""
Occasionally, though, when the focus constricts to the personal, one wonders whether Mr. Fleming labors under an excess of intimacy with his subject. For while the vigor of his father

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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful By David J. Forsmark on May 23, 2005
Format: Hardcover
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.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Brendan J. Clary on September 19, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Ernest Hemingway observed that there is nothing more difficult to write about than a man's life. In Mysteries of My Father, novelist and historian Thomas Fleming superbly does just that, as he examines his father Teddy Fleming's entire life in "downtown" Irish-Catholic Jersey City in the first half of twentieth-century America. Soul, verve, wit and heart emerge throughout.

Teddy Fleming, with an eighth grade education and an indomitable will, overcomes the limited opportunities of his impoverished environment by first leading men in World War I combat. There he learns to trust himself while at the same time accepting the role of luck, or fate, in life. Once home, he rises as a ward organizer for legendary political boss Frank "I am the law" Hague, who eventually appoints Teddy as sheriff of Hudson County, New Jersey.

The author weaves family history with the shared experience of early Irish-Americans who struggle for security against Protestant domination. This rich document speaks of fathers and sons, urban politics in the Tammany Hall era, the education of a historian, the imperative of finding a vocation, the power and influence of the Catholic Church, the pressures of poverty in the days of "Help Wanted---No Irish Need Apply" signs, and most directly, the dissolution of the marriage between the author's mother and father.

The first half of the book, which predates the author's birth, introduces many extended family relatives. The time you spend getting to know everyone is a modest chore as the son deliberately assembles his father's portrait. As we move toward the author's first person perceptions in the second half of the account, though, the book begins to sprint.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Peter F. Daly on September 28, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This is an excellent book that mixes the talents of a good story teller with that of an historian. While the title has "An Irish-American Memoir" in it, it is certainly far more universal than that. It shows how people have to adapt to the world they live in not the one they wished they lived in, and how someones outward appearance can be quite different than the real inner person. This books works at several levels: the inner workings of marriages, parents and their children, making it in America as a newcomer or child of a newcomer, politics, and history. It's accuracy makes me realize how far we have come in 70 years but it also reminds me that for many of us our success and happiness traces back to some pretty tough, not highly educated, ward bosses like Teddy Fleming who cleared the way probably never fully realizing how much their day to day hard work would slowly change the world's major superpower to a more pluralistic and democractic country--even if some of their methods might shock our modern sensibilities.

I recognized the authenticity of this boook immmediately. My grandfather was also, for a while, part of the Frank Hague machine but as county engineer. He eventually left to be county engineer for Bergen County because he refused to approve a sewer project that Hague wanted to give to a friend of Hague's who my grandfather felt was not qualified to do the job properly. With a degree in engineering it was much easier for my grandfather to pick and choose where he worked.

Overall, a very enjoyable book at many levels.
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More About the Author

"How do you write a book?" 24 year old Thomas Fleming asked bestselling writer Fulton Oursler in 1951. "Write four pages a day," Oursler said. "Every day except Sunday. Whether you feel like it or not. Inspiration consists of putting the seat of your pants on the chair at your desk." Fleming has followed this advice to good effect. His latest effort, "The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers," is his 50th published book. Twenty three of them have been novels. He is the only writer in the history of the Book of the Month Club to have main selections in fiction and in nonfiction. Many have won prizes. Recently he received the Burack Prize from Boston University for lifetime achievement. In nonfiction he has specialized in the American Revolution. He sees Intimate Lives as a perfect combination of his double talent as a novelist and historian. "Novelists focus on the imtimate side of life. This is the first time anyone has looked at the intimate side of the lives of these famous Americans, with an historian's eyes." Fleming was born in Jersey City, the son of a powerful local politician. He has had a lifetime interest in American politics. He also wrote a history of West Point which the New York Times called "the best...ever written." Military history is another strong interest. He lives in New York with his wife, Alice Fleming, who is a gifted writer of books for young readers.

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