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What does a father mean when you've never had one?

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'The Last Samurai' by Helen DeWitt
'The Last Samurai' by Helen DeWitt
Courtesy of publisher

 Every week, The Thread checks in with booksellers around the country about their favorite books of the moment. This week, we spoke with Jake Howell from Commonplace Books in Oklahoma City, Okla.

The novel "The Last Samurai" by Helen DeWitt first caught bookseller Jake Howell's eye because it shares a title with a Tom Cruise movie.

Sorry, Cruise fans, there's no relation. But you don't want to miss the book.

DeWitt's novel is instead a meditation on family that experiments with form and style.

It follows a woman who gives birth and chooses to raise her son without a father. "The mother is completely unwilling to let him know who the father was," Howell explained. "At the age of four or five, very naturally, he starts to question why there's no dad around and why she raises him alone."

The son is preternaturally intelligent, and his mother does everything she can to encourage that. The book includes passages from philosophers and thought leaders on parenting - including Yo-Yo Ma's father's thoughts on education. The mother devours all of this. 

"She starts putting that into practice with her own son," Howell said. "This mother, who is clearly in over her head ... she has a prodigy for a child. She openly is telling him: 'I don't know how to raise you.' She's doing her best and doing a good job, but she's being very forthright with him."

Halfway through the book, the perspective shifts from the mother's to the son's, Howell said. "He's still so concerned about finding out who his father is, rather than fixing his relationship with his mom."

Howell found it to be a powerful examination of family roles. "That was the most interesting part about it - the role of a son, the role of a mother and what a father means to a child who has never had one."

The Last Samurai  The Last Samurai