Cover Image: Ancestor Trouble

Ancestor Trouble

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About fifteen years ago, my grandfather did an extensive genealogy project that went back dozens of generations in our family, and when he completed it, I remember leafing through the pages in awe that it was possible to link yourself to ancestors from hundreds of years in the past, using books, family documents, and databases that specialize in connecting distant relatives. I found Maud Newton's journey through genealogy to be so fascinating. She shares her own personal story, but also what she learned during her research on genes and eugenics, family traits, and the relationship between those who share segments of DNA. There were so many interesting bits about how people thought traits were carried from parents to offspring before scientists discovered the genetic sequence and how it works. This was full of information but didn't read like a research paper. Newton did a wonderful job adding enough personal touches to make this feel like a complete nonfiction book. *Advance copy provided by the publisher in exchange for my honest review.
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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.
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Quick Take: The process of learning our ancestry can help us understand ourselves and our families better.

Ancestor Trouble by Maud Newton is an exploration of family and what your genealogy can teach you about yourself.  Newton came from a dysfunctional family.  Her parents married to “produce smart children” in some kind of eugenic experiment (her father was extremely racist).  Not surprisingly her parents' marriage didn’t last.  Newton uses her genealogy research as a way to feel closer to her alienated family and to try and understand where she came from.

This book is filled with information about genealogy, why we might want to track it and how possible it is. With the development of sites like and 23 and Me, testing your DNA and connecting with close relatives is easier than ever.  

I found the parts about her family history interesting, and I like the idea of uncovering secrets in your family's past.  Unfortunately, the rest of the information was a bit boring and didn’t hold my attention. I think what could have made this book better was more of a memoir/auto-biographical take.  The few stories she told about her parents and her family life made me want to know more about HER and how she developed.  Also, how learning about her family emotionally impacted her.  

If you are interested in genealogy and family history, I would recommend this book to you.  After reading this, I got more interested in my own genealogy and called my granny to get more information on my family tree.
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With a combination of biography and keen observations of the world, Newton captures her personal family history with candor and honesty. The family stories she presents are both intriguing and awful. However, this book is more than just a family history, it is a captivating essay on what makes us ‘us’, on the need in each of us to understand where we come from. Well written, captivating, and essential, I thoroughly enjoyed Maud Newton’s ‘Ancestor Trouble’. Thanks to NetGalley and the author for a chance to provide an honest review.
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An inspiring read about genealogy and one woman’s unconventional southern family, I want to thank NetGalley for the copy in exchange for an honest review.
A great read!
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I was grabbed by the title and a limited idea of what the book was about.  I didn't realize so much of it would be describing and explaining the oddities of how heredity works.  Because I already knew quite a bit about that I was hoping that the book would be primarily about the "trouble" that heredity caused.  The author gives very, very detailed descriptions of certain ancestors but I kept expecting that part of the narrative to go somewhere more interesting.  This book has receiving a ton of positive previews and readers will be able to decide for themselves.
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Disappointed. Not as good as I thought it was going to be and a tad predictable. It is still a readable book.

Thanks to Netgalley, Maud Newton and Random House Publishing Group Random House for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Already available!
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It took me much longer than I care to admit to read this one and I am not sure why. Typically I love books like this, but I found my attention wandered a lot as I was reading. It is well written, so that is not the issue. It could just be that for now I am kind of burned out on memoirs. I have no doubt others will enjoy this excellent story.
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I related to this book so much. Like the author, I have had sporadic bouts of genealogy fever, staying up late into the night searching digitized records and DNA matches. I've also had difficult relationships with the generations of my family that I've known personally, and can understand the desire to balance understanding of the past and present. For pedantic old-school genealogy purists and there are many of those, I know from experience!), this book may grate, as it's neither a how-to nor a chronicle of Maud Newton's training. It's a family memoir. I didn't read it straight through, and I sometimes had trouble remembering the various family members after picking the book up again--it could have used a little more framing to help readers keep track of everyone. But I'll round my 4.5 stars up to 5.

Thank you to the publishers and NetGalley for the opportunity to review a temporary digital ARC in exchange for an unbiased review.
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I think we have all asked or at least wondered ‘Who are we?’ ‘Where did I come from?’ Genealogy has become very popular and samples of DNA have introduced many people to the trails of their ancestry. Do the stories that we have heard match what we learn from a swab or from the research we have chosen to do?
Family lore had presented an often troubled tree; murder, mental illness, prejudice, multiple marriages and eccentricities. An interest from early childhood, Maud Newton has taken this task to hand and heart and has authored a fascinating and powerful story, part mystery/part memoir. From her DNA to reading various clippings, census and the writings of her aunt, the research is as extensive as it is revealing. Unearthing what you thought you knew and what you learn is not always easy but it is part of the ‘bones’ of a family and it adds substance to Maud’s personal journey. In the end, it is a journey of healing, of reconciliation and of forgiveness.
My thanks to NetGalley, Maud Newton and Random House for an ARC in exchange for an honest book review.
Highly Recommended.
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Come on, we all love a juicy story about dysfunctional families--they make us feel so normal! Maud Newton goes raking through her family's past, unearthing some really awful stuff even in the last generation (her father would scratch out the faces of black children in books that shows Black and White kids playing together.) When most people read this, it will be hard to keep the look for horror off their faces between the unabashed white supremacists and the people locked up in county insane asylums for egregious behavior. 

I feel for Maud, trying to reckon with all this. But she swerves way off the track when she starts writing about the practice of ancestor worship and how they can work to support us. She believes that we must atone for the our ancestors' deeds, a daunting thought and seemingly impossible task.

"Ancestor Trouble" is her journey.  It covers a lot, so much that it is too much to take in. But it raises the question about whether we are responsible for our ancestors' acts, and if so, can we ever make it right.
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Thanks to Netgalley and the Publisher for an ARC.

I wanted to like this more than I did.  There's some interesting threads here about genealogy and where we come from and how our family makes us who we are, but as a whole I kept finding myself distracted.
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I was so excited for this book and recommended it to many students based on the premise. I started it but then put it down and have to say, I have not been compelled to return to it. 
There's nothing explicitly wrong with it - I just didn't feel hooked in by it. It's very well-written but also intellectual and academic (a bit) and at this particular moment, I just don't feel eager to pick it up at night. I want to read this book and hope that in the future I can start over and enjoy it in the way I'd hoped. I do think it has a lot to offer for folks interested in writing family histories or doing archival research into their personal stories.
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Maud Newton's book attempts to measure what we inherit from our ancestors and the ways in which they shape our lives (both as influences and as patterns we reject and try to reshape our lives against).   She starts with her own complex and tumultuous family.   She begins by investigating some of her family's more dramatic stories (Did her grandfather really marry thirteen times? Did her great-grandfather really kill his best friend with a hay hook?) and ranges through a wide variety of subjects connected to the idea of inheritance (a sample: and 23andme and the complicated ethics of genetic family trees, ancestors who enthusiastically owned slaves and helped eject Native Americans from their land, ancient Greek and medieval concepts of conception and inheritance, epigenetics and the possibility of inherited trauma, the current and changing science on likelihood of mental illnesses being inherited).  I appreciated Newton's ability to depict the complexities of these changing ideas, and I always enjoyed the parts of the book where she took us step by step through a research journey.  I was never quite sure where this book was going to head next, and at times I wanted more of a through-line to connect these complicated ideas together.  I did find myself thinking about the implications of her research every time I closed the book.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for the free earc of this book; my opinions are my own.
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Family relationships are difficult and always have been. A focal point of Ancestor Trouble highlights how our family past shaped us, impacts us in the present, and affects our future if we allow it. There can be a lot of darkness in our ancestors’ lives. “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”

Ancestor Trouble dives into deeply personal family issues of the author. At the same time, it weaves social issues into the personal. Genealogy lore is explored. As a genealogist, I enjoyed all of the different aspects of Ancestor Trouble.

However: This book is much more than a memoir, and the breadth of topics was somewhat overwhelming. I believe that I was feeling overwhelmed as I received an e-arc of this book, in exchange for a review, from NetGalley. If I would have been holding a physical copy of the book and was reading for pure pleasure, I would probably have relaxed and taken the luxury of cherry picking  chapters to read again. Don’t let my personal foibles stand in the way!

My solution to feeling overwhelmed is that I’m going to purchase the book once it’s released. For anyone who enjoys memoirs, wants to know more about genealogy, and is interested in dynamics of family relationships, this is a book to own. 

The bibliography alone makes it worth it to incorporate this book into your reading. In fact, I’d give the book a 5 star rating simply for the bibliography. Ancestor Trouble is worthy of any genealogist’s library.

**This book was provided to me by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.**
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As an amateur family historian and moderator of a southern literary book club, I was excited to get an advance copy of what has been described as ‘an unflinching exploration into the history of a troubled family tree and the universal but also peculiarly American need to discover ‘roots.’’

Readers hoping for a how-to manual on researching family history may be disappointed. While the author does focus a lot on genealogy, she doesn’t dwell much on standard research procedures in the search for her ancestors’ stories. Hers is more a journey of self-discovery, an attempt to come to terms with her role as the descendant of racists, slave-owners, and abusers of indigenous peoples. In addition to genealogy, which she referred to as the oldest form of logic, the exhaustively researched memoir delves deeply into genetics, history, philosophy, psychology, and theology.

Newton’s first experience with family history came when her white supremacist father showed her pedigree charts in a failed effort to show their family’s superiority over other races. As she put it,
“I got interested in researching my father’s family when I learned there were things they didn’t want me to know. My sleuthing began in a spirit of gleeful defiance shadowed by a grimly obstinate self-righteousness. I wanted to root out every secret, lie, and hypocrisy and parade their skeletons up and down the block, to refute my dad’s mythology about what he called ‘our blood.’”
She soon came to believe in the quintessential nature of genealogy, arriving at the understanding that “the stories we tell ourselves about our ancestors have the power to shape us, in some ways nearly as much as our genetics do.” She cited as an example a story that her mother was fond of telling regarding the atmosphere at home when her father came home from work.
” Then his car would pull into the driveway, and, as she gleefully dramatized it to her friends at the time and still says now, the parakeets stopped singing, the cats slunk under the sofas, the dogs tucked their tails between their legs and crept out of sight, and my sister and I hovered anxiously near the hallway, waiting to gauge his mood when he came through the door.”

As a believer in the practice of verifying facts behind one’s research, part of me cringed at what I considered the lackadaisical approach she used in reporting her family history. Much of what she reports appears to be based solely on conjecture and hearsay, or derived from facial expressions in photographs. She makes up her ancestors` childhood attitudes and imagines the appearance of family dwellings she’s never seen. She attributes causal relationships to their vices and creates entire scenarios based solely on one snippet of information. She uses the word probably 30 times and variations of the word imagine another 77. It took me a while to realize that the journey that led her to learn about her family was not the same as mine. In her words,
How did my grandfather feel as he churned through wives and livelihoods and opted out of parenting his children? Was he regretful? Optimistic? Indifferent? Photos, letters, certificates, and census data couldn’t answer these questions, nor could my mom. I began to feel a sympathetic kinship with Robert only when I let my imagination and intuition become involved with what I knew of get involved with the evidence.

As many family researchers do, she turned to genetics to provide insights into her heritage but became disillusioned when she delved into the algorithms used to define geographic ancestries. Commenting on how the number of European ‘reference individuals’ vastly outnumber those from other continents, she sited a comment on Twitter that said “Only white people can steal you, enslave you for hundreds of years, systematically oppress you for hundreds more, then charge you $ 99.99 to tell you where they stole you from”.

In places the book veers off in totally unexpected directions. One such diversion is the chapter titled Lineage Repair in which Newton attends a seminar in the Black Mountains of North Carolina that focused on connecting with and repairing relationships with ancestors dating back thousands of years. She described the procedure as ‘a little abstract’, an opinion supported by her claim to have communicated with a ‘sort of fairy insect’ that ‘had a fat blue -green body like a caterpillar, large blue wings, and a blue human face.’

While this chapter did not endear me to the methods Newton employed to connect with her ancestors, she was sincere in her dedicated search for self-discover, something we all aspire to. Her approach may be unique, but I commend her for the effort she put into it.

*Quotations are cited from an advanced reading copy provided by NetGalley and may not be the same as appears in the final published edition. The review was based on an advanced reading copy obtained at no cost in exchange for an unbiased review. While this does take any ‘not worth what I paid for it’ statements out of my review, it otherwise has no impact on the content of my review.
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Maud Newton begins her book, Ancestor Trouble, with her search for her own heritage. I read the book that goes on sale March 29 in an advance reading copy furnished by Net Galley. She has heard family tales about the ancestor who married thirteen times and was killed by one of his wives and another who was killed with a hay hook and died in an institution. She begins using genealogy sites to find answers to her wonderings with inconsistent results. 

Along with this long term search she brings her own nuclear family, whom she knows, into the picture, adding her family memories in a memoir fashion. Her racist father commends slavery and extols the purity of his own family line back to the Revolutionary War. However, he can’t control her mother who has thirty rescue cats and performs exorcisms in the church she has in the family living room. Her relief at her parents’ divorce and periodic estrangement from both of them only adds to her anxiety about how much of their identity will be passed along to her genetically. So, part of the book becomes the old nature vs. nurture enigma. 

Sandwiched into the narrative, she recounts various cultural practices about death and dying. Her take on religious practices comes largely from her fundamentalist mother without much distinction for other types of Christian practice until she is near the end of the book. I found that to be a missing point in her narrative.

One word of warning – Maud mentions several other books and authors in her own book that make you think you must add them to your list. Second word of warning – if you are disturbed by reading things with which you disagree, this is not the book for you. It seems to me that almost everybody will find some argument with her. On the positive side, if you are interested in the old issue of nature versus nurture or genetics and ancestry, you will find much to interest you in the book. You may even come away glad that someone has relatives crazier than yours.
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The author weaves a compelling story around her personal journey to understand herself and the family she comes from.  Newton's father is a virulent racist who believes that "...slavery [was] a benevolent institution that should never have been abandoned..."  Her mother is a fundamentalist Christian and self-styled minister who believes that sin is caused by demon possession.  Mental illness runs rife in her mother's family as outspoken racism runs through members of her father's family.   She ties her own personal family history research to wider concepts, stretching from the ancient Greek concept of the four "humours" that determined an individual's personality to the study of epigenetics, the study of how your behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect the way your genes work..  She delves into ancestor veneration in cultures around the world and the perks and pitfalls of DNA tests from genealogy websites like Ancestry and 23andme.

Newton has written much more than a memoir or a "harrowing things I learned when I started digging into my family history" tale.  She has synthesized research from many different fields and angles to try to piece together a way the individual may become whole through an understanding of the central relationship upon which all other experiences build: the parent-child bond and how that bond is reflected over and over down the generations.  Highly recommended, particularly for those interested in family history and intergenerational trauma.
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The introduction to this book gave me high hopes of reading something interesting about a family and family dynamics.  Unfortunately, half of the book delved into too much scientific research in which I had little to no interest.  That killed my interest and it made for a long read.
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A very interesting read reading about discovering one's past and reconciling with distasteful aspects of one's close relations. Highly recommend and will be purchasing for library.
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