Praise for My Father's Secret
Not a winner, but great feedback from The Whistler Book Awards and the Canadian Authors Association
In the spring of 2022, I entered the Whistler Independent Book Awards—a contest recognizing excellence in self-published novels. While I did not win, I did receive some excellent feedback on my writing and a thoughtful critique of My Father's Secret. The evaluation was completed by a member of the Canadian Authors Association and, while there were some suggestions to improve my storytelling and writing, the evaluator ended their critique with a wonderful four word sentence: I am a fan.
The criticisms and advice will remain with me as I strive to improve as a writer. However, I thought I'd share the highlights of the evaluation:
As I begin the research for my next novel, I have two book reviews to share. Both deal with the topic of cults. You can find both reviews on my GoodReads page. The storyline of my next novel will involve Declan Keenan and Karuna Patel doing battle with a cult operating out of a retreat centre north of Toronto.
The Road to Jonestown by Jeff Guinn
Guinn's exhaustive account of the Jonestown tragedy (from the birth of Jim Jones to his tailspin into madness and death) is the most comprehensive history you will read on the topic. It follows a linear storyline from start to finish with all the pertinent details. While Jones is described as always being a little bit off, his mission to fight for racial equality and bring relief to the disenfranchised is not lost on Guinn. Ultimately, the idealism of these imperatives gets lost as Jones slips into megalomania, perhaps exacerbated by his drug addiction. The Road to Jonestown is certainly worth the read. Like any cult book, there are times where the content is tough to digest/comprehend/understand, which meant I walked away from reading many times. In the end, I powered through and was grateful for completing the tragic tail Jeff Guinn was able to pull together.
Don't Call it a Cult by Sarah Berman
A disturbing account of NXIVM. I have to admit that I found the book frustrating at times, not because of Berman's writing, but because of the things the people involved in this group were doing. Berman's book shows the vulnerability of intelligent people to fall for someone (or a group) that claims to have the answers to life's most fundamental questions. Once NXIVM pulled these people into their web, they could get them to do just about anything.
When I speak or write about the Air India tragedy, I tend to get very passionate (even preachy) about how we failed the victims through a botched investigation and a collective, national indifference to what happened. I realize that this isn’t entirely fair to the people who did respond appropriately to the tragedy from the eighties to the present.
While passion and anger are appropriate at times, I have been counselled (sometimes overtly and sometimes through passive suggestion) that there are times when a more subdued tone needs to be employed. Speaking in sweeping indictments is often not helpful.
This has been revealed to me over the years through a few key encounters and reflection on the entirety of the Air India story.
This is why I need to be mindful to watch my tone at times. There are plenty of people who have given their all to understanding what happened in 1985. There are many who have used their broken hearts to appropriately mourn the lives lost. And there are many who will not let our nation forget what happened on June 23, 1985.
In 2020, George Floyd was killed by police outside a Minneapolis deli. The video of his last moments spawned worldwide protests against the systemic racism that forms the undercurrent of so many societies. In the summer after Floyd's death, Canadian School Counsellor magazine asked me to write a story about racism in Canadian schools. Writing the article forced me to look at my own privilege as a white male living a cozy existence in Canada. This article was picked up by at least one school board in their efforts to train staff in identifying implicit bias and acknowledging the systemic racism that still pervades our education system.
Click on the button this link or the button below to read the story.
My Father's Secret wasn't always the name of my novel. For the longest time I stubbornly clung to the title A Nation's Shame. My wife was the first person to review my manuscript. She suggested I change the title because it didn't quite sit right with her. She thought it sounded too academic. Like a fool, I dismissed her concerns.
I went through the initial planning phase for the novel with my design team and they came up with the cover mockups above. I told them I wanted a Canadian flag and an open sea included in the design. When I shared the covers with my closest advisors, the middle cover got the thumbs up (I liked the one on the far left). However, two of my advisors felt strongly that the title needed to be changed. From their perspective, A Nation's Shame didn't sound like a work of fiction. To them, when you superimpose the title onto the cover art that I had selected, the book looked more like an government report than a novel. In other words, they agreed with my wife's position—the one I dismissed after she read my draft manuscript. Now I had two different sources telling me the title I coveted was a bust. This created a bit of a crisis for me. Here I was in the design phase of a self-published book and my title had to go.
This wasn't a very pleasant experience for me. It took a few days, and quite a few emails to my advisors—and even more discussions with my wife (who I now refer to as my business manager)—before we settled on My Father's Secret. I actually came up with the title while I was laying down for a nap, trying to calm the stresses that had come with the scrapping of A Nation's Shame. My business manager/wife rejected a lot of titles, but when I said My Father's Secret, she responded, "That could work." I dare not dismiss her a second time.
For the record, my wife has been my number one supporter through the entire process of writing and publishing the novel. While I was a bit of a stubborn fool early on, I came to rely on, and take to heart, her advice. If it weren't for her guidance, I would have given most of my books away or charged people a pittance. She kept me on point. And she was right to do it. I am not just saying this: she is the yin to my yang. I would be a floundering idiot without her there to balance things out for me.
As it turns out (I have shifted back to the title of my book now), calling the book My Father's Secret was the right move for two reasons.
Put in the context of our entire national history, the Air India tragedy, the inspiration behind My Father's Secret, constitutes a colossal failure of government and law enforcement to do the right thing. It is also a massive, collective failure of the Canadian people to do more than pay lip service to multiculturalism, and to recognize that the bombing of those Air India planes was an attack on the fabric of our nation. I maintain that Canadians should be ashamed that the terrorist bombings and mass murder of 331 people has been relegated to a mere footnote in our nation's history. To date, there has been no true reckoning for what happened in and around June 23, 1985.
However, when the Air India tragedy is juxtaposed with what Canada has done to Indigenous people, a compelling argument emerges wherein our white, mostly male, predecessors participated in a long, drawn out form of genocide. We tried to 'take the Indian out of the Indian.' We tried to destroy families and First Nations. An honest account of our history demonstrates that we tried to make the Indigenous people disappear. Thank god we failed.
While the Air India tragedy is shameful (and I will continue to vigorously defend this position), the attempted long-term subjugation and elimination of Indigenous people is our nation's shame.
If you haven't already listened to the MY FATHER'S SECRET playlist, make sure you take a bit of time and listen to the catchy tunes that I dug up for you. It's a different way to enjoy the novel either while you're reading (though this option isn't for everyone) or while you are away from the book. I personally like listening to the playlist when I am driving and when I am taking it easy around the house. The songs are linked to each chapter and sub-chapter of the novel in one of three ways:
Zombie by the Cranberries Featured in the song list for Chapter 1 of the novel, Zombie was inspired by two bombings in Warrington, England (between Liverpool and Manchester) in 1993. The IRA claimed responsibility for the bombings, one of which killed two: Tim Parry, 12, and Jonathan Ball, just three-years-old. Dozens of other people were injured in the wake of the explosion. The event inspired Dolores O'Riordan to write the song as a tribute to Parry and Ball. Music critics at the time called the song a departure from the Cranberries more melodic ballads as Zombie launches into a forceful, uptempo, alternative rock classic. I chose the song for the playlist because it clearly spoke to the Troubles and signalled a theme and tone that fit my storyline. You probably want to check out the video for Zombie here.
Use Me by Bill WithersUse Me by Bill Withers was picked for the playlist because it captures the mood of 1972 from a musical perspective. It is part of the Chapter 2 song selection that includes a mixture of 1970s and early-2000s music. Of all the tunes associated with Chapter 2, Use Me stands out for it's classic groove and soulful vibe. The song itself was Wither's second biggest hit (after Lean on Me) and reached number 2 on the Billboard Chart (kept from number 1 by Michael Jackson's Ben and Chuck Berry's My Ding-a-ling). Where Zombie was picked for the songs clear link to the Troubles, Use Me was picked to set a 1970s mood for the listener/reader.
Bad Side of the Moon by April WineThis Canadian classic was selected for the playlist from two reasons: (a) because it's performed by a Canadian band and (b) because the lyrics hit the mark for what I was trying to achieve in the scene 'A Canadian and a Provo' in Chapter 3. At this point in the story, the RCMP Security Service are coming to terms with the arrival of Darcy Byrne from Northern Ireland. He's bad news. The first words of the song capture the theme:
It seems as though I've lived my life on the bad side of the moon
To stir your dregs and sittin' still, without a rustic spoon
Now come on people, live with me, where the light has never shone
And the harlots flock like hummingbirds, speaking in a foreign tongue
While I identify the song as a Canadian classic (mostly because April Wine made it a huge hit in Canada), Bad Side of the Moon was actually written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin in 1970. Not as Canadian as one might think. You can hear Sir Elton's version by clicking here.
Unwell by Matchbox TwentyLike Use Me, Unwell by Matchbox Twenty was picked to set a mood—this time for November 2003, the time period where Declan Keenan begins to investigate his father's secret. At this point in the story, Keenan is locked away in a school library immersing himself in the available research (of which there is very little) into the downing of BOAC Flight 281. The melody and lyrics provided by songwriter Rob Thomas are a solid reflection of what people were listening to in 2003.
Gimme Shelter by the Rolling StonesChapter 5 of My Father's Secret is pivotal in moving the plot toward its intended (and predictable) destination. Gimme Shelter by the Rolling Stones serves to not only capture the spirit of 1972, it also fits the theme of the chapter. As Mick Jagger sings at the start of the song:
Ooh, a storm is threatening
My very life today
If I don't get some shelter
Ooh yeah I'm gonna fade away
The song then proceeds with a sense of urgency (War, children/It's just a shot away) as the focus of the song speaks of the need for shelter from the madness that is occurring in the world with the rhythm of the song reflecting the lyrics. In Chapter 5, the madness is brewing with the characters not knowing how desperately shelter against the coming storm is needed.
Dark Necessities by the Red Hot Chili-PeppersWith one of the catchiest bass lines of all time (in my humble opinion), Dark Necessities takes the listener on a musical journey that both embodies the musical essence of the Red Hot Chili-Peppers and captivates the listener with its melody and lyrics. In Chapter 6 of My Father's Secret, the Irish hatch a plan to mess with the RCMP Security Service. Their propensity for evil becomes evident. Indeed each emerging terrorist could be described with the refrain 'dark necessities are part of my design.'
Bad Company by Bad CompanyIn Chapter 7, the events of 1973 take centre stage. The music on the playlist blends dark themes with 1970s rock songs—sometimes in the form of cover tunes like John Lennon's Instant Karma, covered by U2. Bad Company by Bad Company takes the listener back to the shadier side of the 1970s as Paul Rodgers expresses an oath to be part of 'Bad company til the day I day.' He describes what bad company looks like:
Deserters we are called
Chose a gun and threw away the sword
In My Father's Secret, Chapter 7 is all about the men who 'chose a gun and threw away the sword.'
Idioteque by RadioheadRadiohead is one of those bands that, when I listened to them for the first time, I thought they were pretty good ... that is until I listened to them a second and a third and a forth time. I love bands that get better every time their music hits my ear. Idioteque is connected to the What's Our Exposure scene in Chapter 8. The song explores the angst of those living in wartime. From the perspective of My Father's Secret, the scene associated with this song is best described in the lyrics: 'We're not scaremongering, This is really happening.' Once you read the scene, you'll know what I mean.
Calling All Angels by TrainChapter 9 is called Declan's Last Stand. The main characters search for justice is frustrated at times and Calling All Angels by Train reflects Declan's appeal for help—or even just an explanation for why things are unfolding the way they are unfolding. This part of the song describes Declan's struggle:
When there is no place safe and no safe place to put my head
When you feel the world shake from the words that are said
And I'm calling all angels
And I'm calling all you angels
A Farewell to Kings by RushThe experience of music continually sounding better with each listen is something I first experienced while listening to Rush's A Farewell to Kings when I was a teen. I soon discovered that Rush always sounded better over time and with plenty of volume. How three guys made all that music is a marvel to me.
Rush appears four times on the My Father's Secret playlist: Hope, Cinderella Man (covered by the Trews), Resist and A Farewell to Kings. The final Rush song on the playlist is really associated with the Afterword where I speak of how the Air India tragedy of 1985 inspired the writing of the novel. The Afterword is an expression of dismay and disappointment in the aftermath of the worst terrorist attack in Canadian history. Neil Peart put's my thoughts into eloquent poetry:
The hypocrites are slandering
The sacred halls of truth
Ancient nobles showering
Their bitterness on youth
Can't we find
The minds that made us strong?
Oh, can't we learn
To feel what's right and what's wrong?
My Father's Secret tells a story of betrayal that encourages people to 'feel what's right and what's wrong.'
There are 82 songs on the playlist. I have described ten of the them here. If you want to see the rest, go to the playlist on YouTube Music or click on the Word file below. It is a pretty cool way to experience the novel in a very different kind of way.
Poetic license and the killing of Jim Reilly
It changed the course of the Troubles. On January 30, 1972, the sway of the civil rights associations was replaced by the militancy of the Provisional IRA. That’s the day the British sent in the paras—an elite paratrooper unit of the armed forces—to help ‘police’ the 15,000 strong group of protesters who were marching against internment in Derry.
Let’s be clear: this was not a kumbaya, peace sign waving lovefest march for human rights. This was a group of angry, disenfranchised people who had had enough of Ulster rule and the imposing of un-democratic measures like internment.
Internment gave the authorities the power to detain ANYONE without charges.
Previous civil rights association marches had been the source of conflict and tension between Republican marchers and Ulster police. The Derry march was not likely to be free of similar conflict and tension but, by days end, no one thought 13 people would be lying dead and 15 others seeking medical attention at area hospitals.
So, here’s what happened. The protesters gathered on the Creggan and began marching toward the Guildhall in the city centre. Police and soldiers were ready and turned the protesters away from their intended destination—mostly because a counter-protest was slated to arrive at the same location, at the same time, which meant all hell would break loose between the two groups. When the authorities stopped the advancing protesters, most diverted toward Free Derry Corner while a passionate minority started hurling rocks at the cops and soldiers. The authorities responded with water cannons, rubber bullets and CS gas—a pretty standard response in the early days of the Troubles.
At one point, the order was given to the paras: arrest as many protesters as you can. Perhaps the effort to detain so many protesters triggered something in paras. Some soldiers say they heard shots fired at them (this was later proven false). At least one military officer disobeyed orders and brought his men into the Bogside. Whatever caused the first soldier to fire the first bullet is irrelevant—the results were clear: 21 of the paras opened fire on the crowd in the area of Rossville Flats, discharging 108 live rounds, killing 13 and injuring 15 (one of whom died six months after Bloody Sunday and is acknowledged as the 14th victim of that deadly afternoon in January).
For years British investigators exonerated the soldiers for opening fire. However, mounting pressure by the families and social justice crusaders resulted in an apology from British Prime Minister David Cameron in 2010 where he admitted that the soldiers fired the first shot and that all those who died where unarmed civilians. Later, in 2016, authorities prepared to lay murder charges against Soldier F (the British military upheld their right not to identify the soldier) in the deaths of James Wray and Willian McKinney, as well as the attempted murders of three other men. In 2021, the charges were dropped when the prosecution determined that they did not have a reasonable hope of securing a conviction. While there was a mountain of evidence of what happened that day, perhaps it was the near 50-year gap between the incident and the willingness to consider charging the soldier that led to the dismissal of charges.
This brings us to My Father’s Secret. I do my best in the novel to re-create the tragic events of Bloody Sunday. I created the character Jim Reilly as a Republican nationalist who attended the protest that day along with two of his friends. Reilly encounters the equivalent of a Soldier F, who executes him in Glenfada Park.
For the record, the Bloody Sunday shootings appear, from the accounts I’ve read, to be an exercise in madness and mayhem. Once the shots were fired, people fled while bodies dropped. Most of the shooting happened in the first few minutes with the killing spree ending about 40 minutes after it started. I admit to using poetic license in the killing of Jim Reilly to highlight the power of Bloody Sunday on Irish consciousness. It is fiction—there was no execution witnessed by onlookers. However, soldiers did pick off victims, some of whom were prone when they were shot.
Bloody Sunday is the most significant wound of the Troubles. It marked a shift in militancy that lasted until the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998 (some say the militancy has never gone away). When tension is allowed to build, and peaceful releases are not discovered, the result is always profound devastation.
For more, see:
Check out Air India 182-- a documentary that describes the tragic events that unfolded in and around June 23, 1985.
Directed by Sturla Gunnarsson, Produced by David York.
My Father’s Secret doesn’t try to hide too much. The back cover already gives away the fact that the novel is a re-imagining of the Air India tragedy of 1985—the worst terrorist attack in Canadian history and only one person, the fellow who bought the component parts of the bomb (the bombmaker?), convicted for his part in the deaths of 331 people (it is important to remember the two people killed at Narita airport in Japan). It was a Canadian tragedy that very few people want to call a Canadian tragedy. This was the event that inspired the writing of the novel.
I was immediately affected by the bombing of Flight 182. Maybe it was because the plane exploded on the morning of my 21st birthday. Maybe it was because the victims boarded the plane a short drive from my home in Toronto. Or maybe it was because I was puzzled by the muted response of the Canadian government and the Canadian people after the plane went down. I don’t remember the tragedy being framed as “Canadian”—instead, I remember a collective disengagement from the event, probably because Canadians of South Asian descent were victims of the tragedy and the episode initially appeared—and was later confirmed—to be perpetrated by Canadians of South Asian descent. I do not remember any mass, multicultural candlelight vigils being held across the country. I do not remember government officials rushing to vow justice for the victims (it took the Canadian government six months to admit that the plane was bombed!). I also do not remember a collective, national hunger to prosecute the men who committed this crime.
Like many Canadians, Air India drifted to the back of my mind. I accepted the way the government and media framed the event. I did not seek out or organize a candlelight vigil. I just sat back and watched matters unfold with a passing interest that defied the gravity of the situation. However, there was always a nagging feeling about the Air India conspiracy that rattled around in my consciousness.
In the spring of 2003, I delivered a commentary on CBC Radio One that made my feelings about the tragedy known. It was about a month before the anniversary of the bombing and just ahead of the trial (and eventual acquittal) of two alleged Air India conspirators. In that commentary, I said,
“My heritage is Irish. I know I would have reacted more intensely if Canadians returning to Ireland had been killed. But the plane was not filled with white people like me, there were mostly dark-skinned people on Flight 182. And while I felt sorrow, there was a distance between the victims and me. In an awful way, I was almost relieved that the dead didn’t include ‘people like me.’ The Air India tragedy has haunted me for years. I look back at my reaction to the event with deep shame. The tragedy has taught me that subtle racism can rest beneath the surface and rear its head disguised as passivity, ambivalence, and disregard. While I may not have been consciously racist in 1985, there certainly was something unconscious going on.”
That summer, I came up with an idea: what if I told the story of the Air India tragedy from an Irish perspective?
And so, it began. I was quick out of the gate. I knocked off twenty pages in no time. I researched Bloody Sunday—the event that was going to act as the mirror to the attack on the Golden Temple in Amritsar in 1984. The story was taking shape.
And then the project stalled. I would revisit the story idea several times a year, but added very little to what I had already written.
Then I retired from teaching in 2019. That gave me time.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020. More time—and no more excuses.
By mid-pandemic the composition of the story had doubled. I worked hard to put as much of the bungled Air India investigation into the novel as I could. I created characters—leaders, spies, and terrorists. I got to know these characters through the unfolding narrative of the protagonists, Declan Keenan and Karuna Patel. Finally, in the spring of 2021, the book was good enough to be given the status of ‘first draft.’
It feels like there were many drafts between the spring and the book’s publication in November 2021. I have endeavoured to iron out as many wrinkles as possible. My hope is that the book, and this blog, will help expose Canadians to the travesty that is the Air India tragedy.
Sean Patrick Dolan's Blog
Sean Patrick Dolan is the author of the thriller, My Father's Secret, inspired by the Air India Bombing.