Friday, November 15, 2013

Nonfiction: The Wolf and the Watchman by Scott Johnson

I decided to pick up Scott Johnson's The Wolf and the Watchman: A Father, A Son, and the CIA when I saw it on the long list for the 2013 National Book Award for nonfiction. It would have to be halfway decent in order to be long listed, and a book about growing up with a parent in the CIA was just too intriguing to pass up.

The Situation: Scott Johnson was born in India, and would grow up never really staying in one location for too long. Only when he became a teenager did he learn that his father was essentially a spy for the CIA. Growing up he knew that there was more to his father's job than what he was told to tell his friends at school, but only when his father levels with him before showing him his "office" are his suspicions confirmed. Scott was always close to his father, and even continued to spend the majority of the year with him after his parents' divorce. He recognizes that being a part of the CIA and being a family man can't be the easiest thing. And being his son was becoming increasingly difficult as well.

The Problem: Not only is it fairly taxing on Scott to never be completely honest about what his father does for a living, but he eventually begins to wonder how much his father has hid from him as well. Surely there were things his father couldn't tell him; things Keith had to hide from his son not only because he wasn't at liberty to divulged them, but also because he had to keep Scott's safety in mind. It is this idea that will cause Scott to distance himself from his father and lead to his inability to completely trust him. Scott can't help but wonder exactly how much of his father's life is pretend. He also can't help but wonder how far his father has gone for the country he loves and works for. And even though Scott chooses a career in journalism, he realizes that he employs a lot of the methods his father used in order to get the information he wants. If he couldn't trust his own dad, what does that say about Scott?

Genre, Themes, History: This is a nonfiction book that follows Scott from his birth in India, through his many travels with his father because of his job with the CIA, and on through Scott's own travels as a journalist for Newsweek. Along with being about what it is like having a spy as parent, the book is almost equally about Scott's adventures as a journalist in Afghanistan and Iraq after September 11th. Ultimately, the book begins to be about how Scott's job as a journalist in a war zone isn't that much different from his father's job with the CIA, and that really bothers him. It more or less all boils down to trust. Just as Keith used his training and skills with the CIA to not only get the information he wanted, but also get certain people to defect and work for the US instead, Scott uses similar skills and, for lack of a better word, manipulations to get the information he needs for his articles. And Scott has hard time reconciling the trust gained in order to get such information, and the perceived betrayal that happens when he then turns around and has that information published for the entire world to see. He also has a hard time coming to terms with some of the stuff his dad did, and other things he most likely did but never actually talked about.

My Verdict: There were moments when this book was incredibly interesting and I had to know what happens next, but also just as many moments when I was incredibly bored and could not have possibly cared less. I was way more interested in reading about what it was like to grow up with a parent who worked for the CIA than I was about Scott's time in Iraq, and the later half of the book leans more towards the latter. It was incredibly educational, and I think Scott portrayed his conflicting feelings towards his dad and even his own path in life quite well, so that even someone who has no idea what it would be like to live like that would understand the issue. I guess I just hoped that would stay as the center focus for the whole story.

Favorite Moment: As a teenager Scott makes the decision to stay with his mother, and his father actually breaks down and cries as he drops his son off.

Recommended Reading: The only suggestion I could come up with was Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner. I don't usually read books about war or government spies, so Hosseini's books were the first ones I thought of as they are usually set in and around the area Scott was covering as a journalist.

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