Genealogy research through affordable DNA testing has been a popular topic in nonfiction lately, as it is in the news in general, I suppose. I made genetics-related nonfiction the subject of a Nonfiction November Expert Week post two years ago.
Two recent memoirs by women look at different aspects of heritage and identity, taking their own paths to better understanding something about where they came from.
In Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation (March 29, Random House), author Maud Newton (who adopted her first name from an ancestor she’s intrigued by) explores her family’s story as she’s researched it alongside chapters addressing the most recent advances in the DNA revolution, some of the ethics of genealogy, and her reckoning of her identity with the more troublesome aspects of her family history.
Much of this family history is of the tall-tale variety: a great-grandfather alleged to have killed his friend with a hay hook and a grandfather who married 13 times and was shot once. It was quite interesting to follow along as she researched and discovered that much of it was true, piecing together what was known from public record and trying to fill in the gaps herself.
But the personal stories felt repetitive, and at around the halfway point my interest waned. I just couldn’t get that invested in her story, and it felt like some of the family members’ stories, or at least the salient highlights, were being told multiple times.
Newton’s biggest issue was with her father, who was racist, among other unsavory characteristics. This is of course one of those highly tricky topics to navigate in your own head — how did I come from someone who I so fundamentally disagree with, what does it mean that this person is a part of me, etc. And it’s a topic I find really compelling, but this book could’ve been edited a bit more tightly. I was out of steam at that halfway mark and skimmed the second half. There is some well-told information about the sociological and scientific sides of the genetics story, but none of it felt particularly new.
My favorite element was her descriptions of her grandmother, who wielded some truly delightful southern sayings. I think this is one where individual mileage will vary depending on how invested you can get in the memoir aspect or if you haven’t read a lot around what’s currently happening in the field of consumer genealogy research. Used or new @SecondSale.com
Alternatively, I really enjoyed Liz Scheier’s Never Simple: A Memoir (March 1, Henry Holt and Co). Scheier centers her memoir around her mother, one of those whirlwind charming types who’s masking something darker beneath the buzzing facade. The story opens with Scheier learning the complicated truth about her father, who she’d been told died in an accident.
That lie is telling of her mother’s personality — diagnosed as borderline, Scheier says she can only believe things her mother says when she sees them with her own eyes. She’s also frighteningly violent and abusive, and this is only made less difficult and harrowing to read because of Scheier’s storytelling ability. She manages to make it darkly humorous and entirely page-turning.
Scheier describes growing up in New York City under fairly incredible circumstances: her mother finagled a fake social security number for her, and they lived in an apartment a block from Central Park despite her mother’s not working (she’d been a lawyer, until she suddenly quit and withdrew from public nearly altogether). The writing is so good and Scheier’s voice so confident that it’s clear she’s reached a healthy place for herself, and she shows much of that journey here.
It does turn into a story about her own foray into motherhood, and this topic is not for me. I definitely wouldn’t have picked this up if I’d known that would be such a heavy focus, but I like her humorous voice and fast-paced storytelling style so I ended up enjoying even that element much more than I expected to.
There are some informational gaps I think could’ve been filled in — this is very clearly a memoir of what she felt, remembered, and perceived versus a more research-based one like Ancestor Trouble. Where the heritage-research element comes in is around Scheier’s father, as well as her sifting through documents and objects after her mother’s death.
This will draw the inevitable comparisons to The Glass Castle, but I think they’re pretty apt here. It was satisfying to see how Scheier worked through her experience and developed as her own person despite difficult beginnings and her mother’s continuous roping her back into life to save her from disasters of her own making. It should resonate strongly with anyone with difficult mother-daughter relationships as well. Used or new @ SecondSale.com
I received advance copies of both titles courtesy of their publishers for unbiased review.