Sunday, February 27, 2022

Book Review: Ancestor Trouble

Maud Newton’s ancestors have vexed and fascinated her since she was a girl. Her mother’s father, who came of age in Texas during the Great Depression, was said to have married thirteen times and been shot by one of his wives. Her mother’s grandfather killed a man with a hay hook and died in an institution. Mental illness and religious fanaticism percolated through Maud’s maternal lines back to an ancestor accused of being a witch in Puritan-era Massachusetts. Maud’s father, an aerospace engineer turned lawyer, was an educated man who extolled the virtues of slavery and obsessed over the “purity” of his family bloodline, which he traced back to the Revolutionary War. He tried in vain to control Maud’s mother, a whirlwind of charisma and passion given to feverish projects: thirty rescue cats, and a church in the family’s living room where she performed exorcisms.

Searching, moving, and inspiring, Ancestor Trouble is one writer’s attempt to use genealogy—a once-niche hobby that has grown into a multi-billion-dollar industry—to expose the secrets and contradictions of her own ancestors, and to argue for the transformational possibilities that reckoning with our ancestors offers all of us.

Ancestor Trouble comes out at the end of March 2022. I was granted an early draft version for reading in exchange for an honest review. I thank the publisher for that opportunity.

Part biography, part how-to and what-for guide to genealogy and heredity, the author shows readers how she explored her own family tree to try to get answers to questions she had. Those who are of similar mindsets or are fascinated by the whole process of examining one's roots will find things to glean from Newton's story and insights. It is well researched, as attested to by the Notes section at the end of the book. The author did her homework to be sure.

For myself, I found that she was getting a little repetitive - retelling the same fascinating tidbits about family members multiple times. A little more editorial input might have helped to tighten this tome up a bit. Don't get me wrong - Newton has an interesting and colorful family tree. If you shake any of the branches of most family trees, you're bound to have a few loose nuts that drop. However, I found myself skipping ahead a number of times to get to a new point. It is likely that I am just not the right target for this one; I tend to not spend a lot of time looking backwards - especially now when so many of my family members are long gone. I want to spend what time I'm still granted looking and moving forward.

No comments: