In the spring of 1961 just before the Berlin Wall is erected, three students from an American high school in Wiesbaden, Germany, decide to skip classes and attend the May Day celebrations in East Berlin. Michael Montgomery, handicapped by polio, lives in Frankfort with his widowed father, Paul, a prominent American banker. Kit Carson is an aspiring novelist and an army brat. The ringleader of the group, Rick, or Ulrich, is the son of Charlotte, a German aristocrat, and General David Healy, a U.S. Army intelligence officer. Rick’s admiration for the works of leftist Herbert Marcuse fuels his socialist beliefs, which prompts him to suggest to his friends that they visit East Berlin.
Their innocent jaunt nearly turns into an international incident when they are shadowed by the Stasi, the East German secret police, and arrested on a trumped-up currency violation. The situation is potentially more serious than the teenagers realize because a secret roll of microfilm is stashed in the tote bag that Rick has “borrowed” from his stepfather. When Paul and Charlotte rush to Berlin to liberate their children from the Stasi, long- buried secrets emerge about Rick’s biological father, a German professor who disappeared during World War II. Michael and Kit are eventually released, but Ulrich stays behind in Berlin. Twenty-eight years later, Paul, Kit, and Michael visit Ulrich in Berlin where Paul reveals the truth about Rick’s background.
Drawing inspiration from his own experience as a student visiting post-war East Berlin in the 1960’s, James Carroll skillfully evokes the deceit, fear, and mistrust that marred international relations during the Cold War era. Yet, it is Carroll’s poignant portrayal of the conflicted love between parents and children that make Secret Father so engrossing—and so timeless.