42 pages 1 hour read

Richard Ford

Independence Day

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1995

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Summary and Study Guide


Independence Day is a 1995 Pulitzer Prize winning novel by the American author Richard Ford. It is the second in the Bascombe Trilogy of novels that includes 1986’s The Sportswriter and 2006’s Lay of the Land. The trilogy centers on the life of Frank Bascombe.

The novel is narrated in the first-person voice of Frank, a realtor and a 44-year-old divorced father of two living children. The story takes place over the Fourth of July holiday weekend in 1988. As Frank chronicles the rather mundane activities of his day-to-day life, and how he arrived in his current state of being since his divorce, his most pressing responsibility is to help save his 15-year-old son Paul from a downward slide into despair. In the process of confronting Paul’s emergence from childhood into young adulthood, Frank must reconsider the state of his own life. 

The edition used for this guide is the Kindle edition, originally published in 2010.

Plot Summary

The novel begins with a sleepy description of Frank’s hometown of Haddam, New Jersey. The suburban nature of the town appeals to Frank and provides him a much-needed stability on the heels of a very tumultuous and chaotic time in his life. Frank was divorced seven years ago, and his former wife Ann has since remarried and settled in Deep River, Connecticut with her new husband, Charley O’Dell. Many years ago, Frank and Ann’s son Ralph died of a rare but fatal disease. Their two surviving children are Paul and Clarissa. It is the Friday of the Fourth of July holiday weekend, and Frank’s plan is to take care of some local business, including picking up a rent check from the tenants of one of his two rental properties. He also needs to take his current home-buying clients, Joe and Phyllis Markham, to see a home in Penn’s Neck, a nearby town. Lastly, Frank has to visit the birch-beer and hot dog stand that he co-owns with a man named Karl Bemish. Once his business at home is finished, he will drive to the Jersey shore. and visit with his girlfriend Sally Caldwell. From there, he will travel to Connecticut to pick up his son, Paul.

Frank’s plan for Paul is to bring him to Springfield, Massachusetts to visit the Basketball Hall of Fame, then travel to Cooperstown, New York to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame. Frank figures that the quality time spent with Paul will steer him out of his troubling recent behavioral patterns. As the impetus for Frank’s plan, Paul was recently arrested for assaulting a security guard who caught him shoplifting condoms. Frank has good intentions and high expectations for this trip with his son, and he has rehearsed and prepared himself for the ways he will bring Paul out of his troubles. Armed with copies of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self Reliance and The Declaration of Independence, Frank fully believes that the quality time with his son will be enhanced by the many lessons to be learned from these monumental texts.

When Frank and Paul finally set off on the road, however, it is immediately obvious to Frank that his intellectual intentions will be of very little value, if any at all. Paul is antagonistic to his father, and the boy’s sarcastic streak puts Frank on edge. Paul has begun to dress in an atypical fashion, which likewise rubs Frank the wrong way. Frank soon realizes that the fantasy he has played out in his mind—that he is the heroic father come to rescue his son—will not play out as he planned.

As they spend more time together, Frank slowly begins to meet Paul on his own terms. This often involves exchanging cheesy, pun-laden jokes. Ann believes that Paul is simply going through a phase typical of adolescence, and while Paul behaves in a manner that seems to prove his mother correct, Frank senses something deeper is troubling Paul. His behavior and current state of emotional turbulence cannot be chalked up to a phase. However, although Frank senses this deeper emotional turmoil, he struggles to articulate it or respond to it in a way that he sees as helpful

After a long day, Frank and Paul arrive in Cooperstown. Before bed that night, Paul finally begins to warm up to his dad, and this continues on into breakfast the following morning. His heart brims with love for his son, Frank notices the change and is encouraged that progress has taken place. But as quickly as Paul warms up, he again becomes antagonistic. After an argument that stems from mocking Frank while he made a fool of himself in the batting cages, Frank taunts Paul and cajoles him into giving it a try himself. Paul storms into the cages with no helmet. After watching a couple of pitches zoom by, Paul lurches his head out in front of a fastball and is hit square in the eye.

This is the novel’s penultimate moment, the climax of the rising tension between Frank and his son. Frank immediately fears the worst: that Paul has been killed. The EMS arrives and, after stabilizing Paul, informs Frank that while the injury is not fatal. Paul is taken to a hospital in Oneonta, New York, about a 30-minute drive away, and Frank is not allowed to escort his son in the ambulance. Once at the hospital, Frank learns of the extent of the injury: Paul’s eye has been damaged and needs immediate surgery. Frank calls Ann, who flies by helicopter from New York City and transports Paul from Oneonta to Manhattan, where he will get the surgery he needs.

Paul’s accident has a profound effect on Frank and Ann, as it recalls the trauma both experienced with the death of their other son Ralph. As a result, the two humbly and finally come to terms with their past life together and form a new kind of friendship, unburdened from the leftover animosities of their divorce.

As Frank reflects on Paul’s injury and their relationship, he realizes the folly of emotionally closing himself off from the world, especially from the ones he loves. His recent phase of emotional detachment—which he calls his “existence period”—is not the answer to suffering that he has convinced himself it is. Paul’s accident forces Frank to come to terms with past trauma, and in so doing, he liberates himself from it. This also frees him from his mid-life crisis and ushers him into a new phase in life, one he refers to as his “permanent period.”