Review: Making peace with the past – Lincoln Journal Star

DNA

KATHARINE A. POWERS Star Tribune

“Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation” by Maud Newton; Random House, 378 pages, $28.99.

Writer and critic Maud Newton’s family has provided her with a profusion of material for her first book, “Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation,” a passionate memoir and investigation of inheritance and bloodlines. Her father, Richard, proud of his slaveholder forbears from the Delta, was a mendacious, sadistic disciplinarian who prized his family tree above all things.

Her mother, Sandy, came from dirt-poor “Texas rabble-rousers, scoundrels and misfits” for whom “popular family activities” were “dipping snuff and quarrelling.” Richard married Sandy believing that the two of them would add to his line’s excellence by producing smart children; Sandy, who had recently attempted suicide, was already in her 30s and divorced — not ideal selling points in the marriage market — saw the arrangement as a means to a comfortable, settled life. Love had no place; instead, as Newton puts it, “I came into being through a kind of homegrown eugenics project.”

People are also reading…

That’s only the beginning — or rather the end point, as Newton tunnels deep into the past to investigate the truth of family tales about her ancestors’ lives and deeds.

Did her grandfather really marry 13 times and get shot in the stomach by one of his wives? Did her great-grandfather kill his best friend with a hay hook, go mad, and die in an insane asylum? What of her great aunt who also died in an institution? Or her great-great-grandmother, who is said to have had it with children and killed her 10th as soon as it was born? Then there are the slaveholders and expropriators of land belonging to indigenous peoples: How, Newton agonizes, can she make amends?

Newton’s research into these people and others is prodigious, marked by shrewd detective work, serendipitous discoveries and DNA evidence acquired from genetic genealogy companies. Along the way, she fills in the true facts she uncovers about her ancestors, including the doings of a great-aunt, Maude, who might have thrown pepper in her husband’s face to get rid of him, but who very definitely started up an auto dealership when she was 80.

Newton opens the vexed question of what behavior or tendency is genetically inherited and if inherited, whether it must necessarily manifest itself. Indeed, she wonders if her “ancestor obsession” is an expression of the sort of weirdness that drove her mother to adopt 30 cats, start her own church in her living room, speak in tongues, and fear demons.

For Newton the big question becomes what exactly our relationship with our ancestors is. To this end, she looks at the ways inheritance has been conceived in earlier times and by diverse cultures. Eventually, she attempts to deal with the crimes of her ancestors and, much to this reader’s consternation, plunges whole-hog into mystical waters, communing with a couple of her “well” predecessors who, in turn, become agents for “repairing” the “unwell” ones.

This exit from the empirical world is, I must say, a rather deflating ending to a really fascinating, well written book.

Katherine A. Powers, a Minnesota native, also reviews for the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post.

0 Comments

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Most Popular

Review: Mapping a real adventure

“River of the Gods: Genius, Courage, and Betrayal in the Search for the Source of the Nile” by Candice Millard, Doubleday, 349 pages, $32.50.

News anchor Katy Tur details abusive childhood and rise in new book

“Rough Draft: A Memoir” by Katy Tur; Atria/One Signal Publishers (272 pages, $28) ——— Like any good journalist, Katy Tur went out to get the story. She had no intention of becoming it, but former President Trump had other ideas. When the MSNBC anchor was assigned to cover Trump’s 2016 campaign, she figured he’d fade fast. Instead, he kept winning. The bigger he got, the more he focused his …

Meet Adrian Matejka, the first Black editor to lead Poetry magazine in its 110-year history

CHICAGO — Adrian Matejka, Indiana’s poet laureate from 2018-2019, is still trying to figure out Chicago’s bus system. He laughs about missing his bus heading to the Poetry Foundation on Superior Street because a new neighbor recognized him and said, “I love poetry, and heard that you’re the new editor. Let’s talk.” He graciously introduced himself and Matejka offered his thanks to the neighbor …

In deeply personal new memoir, Baltimore’s D. Watkins explores what it means to be a father — and a son

BALTIMORE – Like father, like son? Big Dwight Watkins and Lil Dwight sit side by side on a bench on the deck outside Lil Dwight’s house in Homeland. They are tall men, and their bodies incline toward the right, legs spread out in front of them and arms resting on the bench backs. Both have wide faces and when they smile, their cheekbones angle sharply into their chins, as if not afraid to make …

Review: ‘The Clean Daughter: A Cross-Continental Memoir,’ by Jill Kandel

“The Clean Daughter” by Jill Kandel; North Dakota State University Press (341 pages, $32.95) ——— North Dakota writer Jill Kandel’s second memoir is bifurcated. The first half explores the early years of her marriage to a Dutch agronomist named Johan. For 20 years, the two live in the Netherlands, Zambia, Indonesia and England before settling in the United States. The book’s second half …

Author Steve Berry talks ‘The Omega Factor’ and the future of Cotton Malone

ORLANDO, Fla. — Central Florida-based author Steve Berry has been crafting novels for more than two decades and while he still has plenty of stories to tell, being on the road can get a little tiring. “I’m a little old for this!” he joked, while discussing his recent book tour, which has brought him all up the East Coast to Atlanta, Baltimore and more during a three-week-long tour to promote …

Review: ‘Cabin Fever,’ by Michael Smith and Jonathan Franklin

NONFICTION: “Cabin Fever” takes us inside the Zaandam, which had an unanticipated passenger — the coronavirus. “Cabin Fever” by Michael Smith and Jonathan Franklin; Doubleday (253 pages, $30) ——— The best nonfiction, in my mind, reads like a novel. It’s filled with compelling characters and takes you to a place you’d never otherwise experience. It tells a story that grabs you by the throat and …