Fox on Books

Book reviews, opinions, musings and ramblings. General bookish excitement!

The Wolf and the Watchman – by Scott Johnson

I don’t often read biographies – it takes a pretty extraordinary person or life to warrant a book about it, in my opinion. In The Wolf and the Watchman, Scott Johnson examines his life with his Dad, a CIA operative working through the years of the Cold War. I read an article in the Age weekend magazine that turned out to be an excerpt from the book, and I was accidentally hooked from that alone! This is what I thought of the rest of Johnson’s story:

When he was 14, Scott’s father tells him the truth: the secret that explains why the family moved from New Delhi, to Belgrade, to Islamabad, to Williamsburg, Virginia. The reason people always looked a little sceptical when Scott said his father was a diplomat. The why behind his parents’ divorce.

Scott’s father, Keith Johnson, was a spy.

Letting Scott in on the secret reinforced the incredibly strong connection between father and son but at the same time sowed a seed of suspicion for Scott – his father’s whole life revolved around manipulating assets, obscuring the truth, subtly working to present the world in a certain way. How much of that manipulation, how many of those lies stopped when he got home?

Scott eventually became an investigative journalist, and that inquiring mind spent a good deal of time asking questions of and about his father – what was his involvement in big political events, how sincere was he in dealing with his friends and family, and how clean were his father’s hands? The one thing that was never really in question was Keith’s devotion to his son.

I was impressed by this book for a number of reasons, especially the incredible writing. Johnson’s journalistic background is evident as he paints a scene so vivid and using language so gorgeous I felt like I was a part of the experience:

“At the reception the band played mariachi and she [Scott’s mother] danced on the cool patio tiles with my father. When the clinking of glasses rang across the verandah and the long-leaved plants quietly ushered them along the floor, she was able to think serenely about the future, and the way they both fit together.”

The tale is compelling and the ethical deliberations Johnson conducts as he examines his life then and now in the context of his father’s involvement with the CIA is at once fascinating on a world scale as we, the reader, see the events in their global context and at the same time fiercely, sometimes painfully personal. Johnson doesn’t shy away from the hard questions he wants answered – and crucially, neither does his father, who supported his son in the writing of this book regardless of how confronting it was for both of them.

I took my time with this book because I was completely enthralled by the story and the candid nature of the storytelling. It was incredibly brave, visceral and relevant. I’ll be re-reading this one (if I ever get enough time!).

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Are you interested in Scott Johnson’s story, or have you read it already? How do you find biographies in general; fan or not?

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  1. Pingback: Top Ten Tuesday – Top Ten Books I Recommend The Most | Fox on Books

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