cover image Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation

Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation

Maud Newton. Random House, $28 (384p) ISBN 978-0-8129-9792-7

Newton debuts with a masterful mix of memoir and cultural criticism that wrestles with America’s ancestry through her own family’s complex past. While it’s often “cast as a narcissistic Western peculiarity,” she argues that “ancestor hunger circles the globe” as people have increasingly begun to search for “a deeper sense of community, less ‘I’ and more ‘we.’ ” Newton, though, was raised on fanciful stories of her relatives—including a grandfather with 13 ex-wives, and her great-aunt Maude (the inspiration behind Newton’s writing pseudonym), who died young in an institution—and tales of murder, witchcraft, and spiritual superstition, all of which she interrogates here with a shrewd eye. As she “search[es] backward” through her family’s history in an effort to find redemption and healing, she contextualizes their stories within the nation’s history of white supremacy and religious fundamentalism (her mother was a fervent evangelical who believed their “forebears had sinned in such a way as to open the door to a generational curse”). Most affecting is her rendering of her complicated relationship with her father and his own “racist bloodline,” likening her existence to “a kind of homegrown eugenics project.” The result is a transfixing meditation on the inextricable ways the past informs the present. Agent: Julie Barer, the Book Group. (Mar.)