, 2022-07-10 02:22:25,
The idea of ancestry, of finding one’s roots by digging up family histories, has become quite a trendy topic over the past few years. But, as we eagerly swab our cheeks and spit into tubes, we should remember that the problem with fetishizing your family history is that the more you look into it, the better the odds that you’ll find something that won’t impress people at dinner parties. Everyone wants to hear they were descended from, say, Napoleon or Catherine the Great—nobody wants to find out they were the great-great-great-great-great-grandchild of a medieval peasant or a scullery maid.
And history is full of obscured, tangled, and just plain ugly roots, a fact that is being discussed more widely now despite resistance from those who would rather ignore it or pretend it doesn’t matter.
Maud Newton’s gutsy new book, Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation, looks squarely at her troubled family history, which includes some overt racists, disturbingly intense evangelicalism, and a checkered cast of characters, one of whom married 12 different women. There are deeply researched chapters about genetics and the possibility of inherited generational trauma, among other issues, but the book is also a sprawling and lively family saga, telling very human stories that intersect with some of the darker currents of American history, from plantations to the Puritans.
Examining the various skeletons in her family’s closet, Newton finds much to deplore about the way some of her family thought and acted. Her race-obsessed father explicitly set out to create physically superior offspring, which Newton amusingly reports didn’t exactly pan out: “I’m living proof that having the same muscle composition as an ‘elite power athlete’ guarantees…
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