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."
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.
Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation
By: Maud Newton.
Publisher: Random House, 378 pages, $28.99.