Book review (non-fiction): ‘Ancestor Trouble,’ by Maud Newton | Books

By Katherine A. Powers Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

Writer and critic Maud Newton’s family provided her with a wealth of material for her first book, “Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation,” a passionate memoir and investigation of inheritance and bloodlines. His father, Richard, proud of his Delta slave ancestry, was a deceitful and sadistic disciplinarian who valued his family tree above all else.

His mother, Sandy, came from a “riotous, scoundrel, and misfit Texas” for whom “popular family activities” consisted of “taking tobacco and bickering.” Richard married Sandy thinking the two would add to the excellence of his lineage by producing intelligent 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 way to lead a comfortable, sedentary life. Love had no place; instead, as Newton puts it, “I was born through some sort of local eugenics project.”

This is just the beginning – or rather the end point, as Newton delves deep into the past to investigate the truth of family stories about the life and deeds of his ancestors. Did his grandfather really get married 13 times and was shot in the stomach by one of his wives? Did his great-grandfather kill his best friend with a hay hook, go crazy, and die in an insane asylum? What about his great-aunt who also died in an institution? Or his great-great-grandmother, who would have had him with children and would have killed his 10th as soon as he was born? Then there are the slavers and the expropriators of land belonging to the indigenous peoples: how, agonizes Newton, can she make amends?

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Newton’s research on these and other people is prodigious, marked by shrewd detective work, chance finds, and DNA evidence acquired from genetic genealogy companies. Along the way, she learns about the facts she discovers about her ancestors, including the actions of a great-aunt, Maude, who could have thrown pepper in her husband’s face to get rid of him, but who most certainly started a car dealership when she was 80.

Newton opens the controversial question of what behavior or tendency is genetically inherited and if inherited, if it must necessarily occur. Indeed, she wonders if her “ancestor obsession” is an expression of the kind 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 is what exactly is our relationship with our ancestors? To this end, she examines the ways in which heritage was conceived in ancient times and by various cultures. Eventually, she attempts to come to terms with the crimes of her ancestors and, much to this reader’s dismay, plunges the whole pig into mystical waters, communing with a few of her “good” predecessors who, in turn, become “repair” agents. the sick ones”.

This exit from the empirical world is a rather deflating end to a truly fascinating and well-written book.

Colin L. Johnson