A writer researches her genealogy—her grandfather's marriages, the accused witch, her ancestors' roles in slavery and genocide—and seeks family secrets through her DNA while meditating on the meanings and politics of familial inheritance.
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.