Who am I? is the question troubling Maud Newton in her extraordinary and wide-ranging book ... We sink as deep into history, science and spirituality as we do into Newton’s family tree. Her genealogical investigation transforms into an investigation of genealogy itself, a subject rich with conjecture and a perennial social longing that she terms 'ancestor hunger' ... When one inquiry reaches its natural end, she belays herself back and begins another route. It makes sense, this method — which becomes the book’s structure, too — because curiosity and lives never proceed in direct paths ... Newton’s pursuit gathers into a fist of anguish as she traces and faces 'monstrous bequests' of racism, from Southern ancestors who enslaved people to a Northern ancestor who helped drive Indigenous people from their villages in western Massachusetts ... a powerful acknowledgment. Ancestor Trouble is also a literary feat that simultaneously builds and excavates identity, and it’s a blueprint for making something of cultural, intellectual, emotional, physical, spiritual and genetic legacies often burdened with messy debris.
Such exquisite care is threaded subtly through all Newton’s pages ... Trained as a lawyer, Newton brings meticulous research to bear on uncovering her family members and their lives ... With her scrupulosity, she faces hard facts. With her artistic sensibility, she wraps herself around them. Her sorrow at the slaveholding is great. She, too, is a beneficiary of corrupt mini-empires built on subjugation and suffering. Yet her exploration still glints—with her relatives’ real and hoped-for good qualities, with real or hoped-for moments of grace. Through it all, the gods of her book remain near. Her father and especially her mother. Both have acted in ways that individual readers will have to consider. The painful nature of some of their actions colors this book. But they are drawn with careful detail and given great consideration. On the page, they seem illuminated yet protected ... By the end, Maud Newton’s great openness to and evocations of all the journeys she took turn into Ancestor Trouble’s great beauty, poignancy, and power.
We look to family trees perhaps because of an interest in history, but ultimately because we want to know more about ourselves. Newton starts with a similar curiosity but quickly moves to more interesting questions. How much of what is inherited is inescapable? What is nature, and what is nurture? ... Ancestor Trouble does what all truly great memoirs do: It takes an intensely personal and at times idiosyncratic story and uses it to frame larger, more complex questions about how identity is formed. Using her own family tree, with its mix of colorful characters, closet-lurking skeletons, and truly vile monsters, Newton recounts the tall tales about these folks she grew up with before revealing what dogged and thorough research has turned up about their actual lives ... the book ends a far sight from where it’s begun, having sloughed off simplistic questions about heredity. Its genius lies in its unmasking of the real motives that drive us to send off our saliva for DNA analysis.
Newton’s beautiful and complexly nuanced Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation...brings her astute mind and her engaging writing style to explore why people are so intrigued by what they find in their ancestral past, and whether recent findings in genetics support notions of inheriting the temperaments or intellectual or athletic gifts of our forbears ... While Newton could have settled for comparing the stories she heard as a child with what she found through genealogical research to reveal a singular family portrait, she presents instead a rich and powerful understanding of the ways that linking ourselves to our family tree provides a sense of connection that helps us feel grounded ... The memoir parts of Newton’s book read like a suspense novel, and part of the pleasure of the book is watching Newton play detective.
Genealogy is a national obsession right now, and there’s no shortage of books about the family revelations uncovered by research and DNA testing. But genealogical accounts are almost always inward-looking exercises; few writers can offer a tale as riveting and timely as Maud Newton does in Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation. This is testament not only to her lyrical writing and wide-ranging scholarship but to the story told by her family tree — one of profound intergenerational racism intertwined with the worst moments of American history ... At its best, Ancestor Trouble becomes a kind of personal reconciliation project, one that tells of generations of White violence, cruelty and theft, as well as entrenched intergenerational brainwashing ... There is something moving about Newton’s efforts to honor the forgotten, and I found fascinating the idea that in literally attempting to know the dead, we better understand our place in the world. But her insistence on seeing intergenerational patterns, no matter how far back or far-fetched, threatens to undercut the nuance and rigorous research that characterize the rest of her book ... If Newton’s attempts to connect with the past are unusual, her clear-eyed look at her ancestors’ complicity is nonetheless a valuable and bracing portrait of one American family tree that we know represents many, many more. This is why we look back, and it’s why genealogy can be so powerful — because the past is still with us, because we can’t change the present until we’ve retraced the path that led us here.
... her vigorous book Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation deepens her investigation of both family lore (her maternal grandfather is rumored to have married 13 times, once to a woman who shot him in the gut) and our broader preoccupation with our forebears ... Newton's critical eye shines in another section on the interplay between nature and nurture, which delves into the debate on epigenetics—how experience and environment affect the expression of genes—and the possibility of inherited trauma ... Because Ancestor Trouble is structured less around Newton's own tracing of her family tree and more around broad categories of ancestral concern, we inevitably revisit the same biographic material multiple times across the book. Newton sometimes leaves readers hanging for many chapters before completely closing a loop of personal inquiry[.]
... a passionate memoir and investigation of inheritance and bloodlines ... 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 ... 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 ... This exit from the empirical world is, I must say, a rather deflating ending to a really fascinating, well written book.
This is rich material for a soul-searching memoir, but in Ancestor Trouble, Newton aims for more than an accounting of family secrets. She surveys and synthesizes what we know today about inheritance, a wealth of new knowledge derived from the sequencing of the human genome and the explosion of genetic research that followed ... Her journey is by turns revelatory, funny and exquisitely sad, as she tries to understand the fraying of what were once the sturdy and loving bonds of family ... This combination of personal revelation and synthesis works, for the most part. Newton is a logical thinker and a hyperacute observer, with a prodigious memory and a lacerating honesty. She’s a transparent and at times lyrical writer ... It is disquieting, then, when after many pages of lucid observations, she goes off the rails on the subject of [literal] ancestor worship—its ancient origins and modern incarnations ... It’s as if Newton’s analytical mind took a holiday in the struggle to make her contradictory feelings come together. This deviation in tone and intent, so late in the book, throws the reader. If family reconciliation is the goal, the results feel sadly incomplete.
... a revealing family memoir with a well-researched and thoughtful exploration of heredity and genealogy ... Newton introduces a large cast of characters from her lineage, some of whom were accused of murder and witchcraft. The conflict-filled marriage of her parents provides rich narrative material, as do Newton’s often moving reflections on her markedly different relationships with her Texas and Mississippi grandmothers ... As absorbing as it may be, Newton’s family story is only one element of her account. Ancestor Trouble broadens into a much deeper excavation of the subject of ancestry that ranges widely across an abundance of topics, among them the allure and danger of websites like 23andMe and Ancestry.com and the spiritual practice of ancestor veneration. She also investigates controversies in cutting-edge DNA research, acknowledging that apparent scientific advances are not always unalloyed goods ... Newton’s family history is uniquely hers, but her book arms anyone who’s ever been tempted to visit their own ancestry in a serious way with a host of provocative questions to consider.
An engaging and thoroughly researched memoir relaying a family history that is at turns recognizable and abhorrent, as an honest and typical history of American exceptionalism, racism, and misogyny. Will appealing to lovers of memoirs, family secrets, genealogy, and the sociological makeup threading U.S. history.
In exploring her own background, Newton investigates current theories regarding DNA analysis, inherited trauma, and psychological profiling with Sherlockian verve and an academician’s tenacity. Genealogy sleuths often undertake such quests hoping to discover hidden gems buried deep in those census records, such as a direct link to aristocracy or a Founding Father. Newton is just looking for some peace of mind, and her approach may help others realize what a worthy goal that is.
Newton debuts with a masterful mix of memoir and cultural criticism that wrestles with America’s ancestry through her own family’s complex past ... a transfixing meditation on the inextricable ways the past informs the present.