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Ancestor Trouble

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My aunt wrote a book about her (and therefore, my) ancestors. I'm now reading it, and it's really interesting. As a child, I remember going to the library with my mom when she would research our genealogy using the microfilm machine there. In 2019, many of us traveled to Germany to see the places our ancestors had lived. Fascinating! And yet, as I read the stories, there are troubling things there as well as good.

That's probably what sparked my interest in "Ancestor Trouble." I was curious to see how author Maud Newton would explore the topic. And oh my -- explore she does. Newton (not her real  name; she has taken on the name as an ancestor to write under) has always been extremely interested in her past. Much of that is probably due to her relatives being decidedly colorful. In her history, there is a relative who has been married 13 times; another who, tired of having child after child, killed the most recent baby by hitting its head against the outdoor steps; another who fought and killed a friend in a battle involving a hay hook. I can guarantee that you'll feel better about your own family history after perusing Maud's.

This book is equal parts Maud's family history and forays into various aspects of genealogy, genetics, etc. As to her look into her own family, she is decidedly angry about her father, going on and on AND ON about him being racist. This theme was so prevalent that I did a search (yes, I read this on Kindle), and racist/racism were mentioned 34 times. "He and Mamma both were openly, unremittingly -- 'jubilantly' is not too strong a word -- racist." Racism is a huge issue for Maud, and in addition to calling her dad on it, she takes the issue further. She feels is racist in offering Heritage Tours. She mentions the Department of Defense using programs "with sometimes racist results." Discovering that she is fully white, after having her DNA tested, "was deeply, irrationally disappointing, as though having mixed ancestry would somehow mitigate the wrongs of my forebears." Wow! I pictured Maud as one of the current batch of woke 30-somethings, but she's actually around 50. Race is obviously an issue of huge import to her -- and though I'm sure she'd disagree, I find that in itself racist. Oh, that we could all just view people as people, rather than as their color. And I wondered about her dad. He's a lawyer, presumably still living. She is estranged from him, but if he is as awful as she describes, it's hard to imagine him maintaining such a career.

Maud isn't just upset about her forebears' racism, but about their wrong treatment of indigenous peoples as well. "It's one thing to acknowledge bigotry and inhumanity where we expect it, where we've always judged it, in people we already view critically. It's another thing to face and acknowledge it in the people we love most. My ancestors through Granny perpetrated other large-scale wrongs, too. I'd never imagined my own forebears interacting with indigenous people of this land. That history, like the Mayflower, felt remote, like something that couldn't have involved my family directly, even though I knew that they -- and I -- had benefited from systemic injustices against Native people." Yes, this is an actual quote. Can you tell that I was cooling on this book faster than if I'd been shoved into the freezer? In an attempt to assuage her familial guilt, she asks "forgiveness of the land and its Native people, living and dead. On the worn dirt at the foot of a bench, I emptied a bottle of wine as an offering." I am not making this up.

At this point, the contrarian in me had to look at Maud's angst over the actions of her relatives and ancestors, see her sanctimonious attitude, but then wonder what future generations would think about her in, say, 2100. Will the woke attitudes she so prizes be equally prized then? Or will future generations judge her as harshly as she now judges those past? It's worth considering.

In the midst of all this, guess who enters the picture? Yep, Donald Trump. In a chapter about eugenics, Maud writes "Donald J. Trump, former president of the United States, credited 'good genes' for his success, intelligence, and health, and the orange glow of his skin." Awww -- she captured the "orange man bad" phrasing so popular among the woke. Later in the book we read of something praised by "former president Bill Clinton," since of course his name could only be associated with positivity. We also read of "a bill proposed by congressional Republicans in 2017 that would have allowed employers to require their employees to undergo genetic testing or pay a fine if they refused." She makes no mention of current congressional Democrats, who support fines, mandates, and even firing for those choosing not to get Covid vaccines. I'm sure that troubles her just as much.

In the parts of the book that take a more non-fiction angle, Maud explores all aspects of genealogy. Many of these are quite tangential, but I credit the author for being a deep thinker and for leaving no rabbit trail unfollowed. She is "a committed unbeliever," "a committed agnostic," who is offended at the Christian beliefs of many of her relatives and ancestors. Early in the book she points out what she sees as inconsistencies in the Bible. She explores spirituality in various ways, by studying many different religions and going on some experiences that sound like seances. She feels "all our dead who have not been properly grieved and elevated are unwell ghosts cluttering up the spirit realm, preventing us from accessing the wisdom of our ancestors and the best way forward for ourselves."

I have many more things highlighted, but that's about enough. As you can probably guess, this was not a hit for me. I credit Maud with good writing, and I do feel sad for all the stress and anxiety she feels, even as I disagree strenuously with her methods for finding resolution and peace. "Ancestor Trouble" isn't a book I can recommend.
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I received a digital advance copy of Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation by Maud Newton via NetGalley. Ancestor Trouble is scheduled for release on March 29, 2022.

Ancestor Trouble chronicles Maud’s deep dive into her family’s past. Maud’s fraught relationship with her parents (each for different reasons) and stories she has heard about her ancestors sent her on a search for the truth. She uses traditional ancestry, DNA based ancestry, and the words of living relatives in an attempt to find the truth.

As Maud shares what she has learned, she reflects on a variety of related issues. The use of DNA to predict our medical future. The use of DNA to create pictures or find relatives of potential criminals. The potential impacts of epigenetics (information outside of DNA that seems to be passed from one generation to the next). Our responsibility for the wrongs of our ancestors (for Maud this included slave owners, overt racists, and murderers). Religion as a way to find meaning in life and as a tool to degrade others.

Maud’s story was very identifiable for me. Like Maud, I have many questions about my ancestry, and have considered some of the same avenues of exploration Maud took. The urge to find roots, to understand the echoes and ripples from the past, was clear throughout Maud’s story. Maud does a good job of explaining the revelations she makes along the way, while making it clear that in the end, she may have more questions than she did when she started.

Entwined with Maud’s personal journey are explanations of many of the social and scientific concepts that impact her exploration. These explanations are presented in a way that should help readers understand the hows and whys of these concepts and how they influence our understanding of ourselves and our pasts.

Overall, Ancestor Trouble delivers on both its title and subtitle. I expect most of us would have troubles, reconciliations, and reckonings if we took on the same deep exploration of our family trees, though the specifics may be different for each of us.
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Newton's non-fiction is researched to the hilt, along with her narration of her family's history and how she has come to grips with them. This book holds so much history on race, gender, heredity of traits and many many more topics, all of which she ties into her attempt to come to resolution with her wildly charismatic family. This book is valuable on many levels and not one to miss!
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Maud Newton's Ancestor Trouble shows the effort and surprises that go along with deciding to jump into the search for a family's history. Newton provides background information on popular ancestry websites and DNA swab tests as she teases readers with what she has discovered about her relatives. Most interesting are the comments by her older relatives who want to avoid the topic, for reasons never explained. Readers will understand the commitment it takes to research news articles and databases to find documented family history and the interpersonal connections needed to gather the anecdotal stories.
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Maud Newton is a fifteen memoirist, and brings to life, not only the people who populate her life, but enough outside material and resources to make her shotgun-style  storytelling informative as well as insightful.. Her style is engaging, especially when recounting family dynamics and as she seeks to connect the dots between her own lived experiences and those of her ancestors. That said, I felt this book could only have been written in the current social and political environment of apology. Much to the detriment of the story, I think, the author returns time and again to their need redeem what she sees as the wrongs committed by her people. That half the endnotes feature boilerplate apologies and acknowledgments.

As a trained genealogist, I was excited to see how the author used her research to gain further insight into herself, her family and the history of her family. There were definitely bright spot, but, again, at some  junctures she seemed almost disappointed that those who went before her weren’t as inhumane as she’d imagined or maybe even hoped.

Overall, Ancestor Trouble is a good read, though not an easy read. Newton goes pretty far out in her attempt to draw straight lines, and that doesn’t always work, but the end result is interesting, information and insightful ?
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When I first began this book, I read a review that the story would be like "Educated." However, it is written more like an interesting textbook on genealogy. This would actually make a wonderful book for courses that teach genealogy. There are some interesting personal aspects the author weaves into the book that personalizes the information. The author goes in-depth on the history of genealogy and the different companies that provide the testing and covers the science of genealogy quite well. It can get a little dry if the reader is not interested in the science aspect.
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This was one heck of a personal journey. There were so many unique characters, appalling stories and sad stories. The  journey the author made was so very moving and compelling to read.
I voluntarily read and reviewed an advanced copy of this book. All thoughts and opinions are my own.
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As it turns out, I am not the intended audience for Ancestor Trouble. I loved the introduction but after that, most of the book was more about the more technical side of genealogy and less about the stories of the author's family.  If you are interested in exploring your family blood line then you will find much to like here. Who knows, I could be revisiting it myself down the road. Thank you to Random House for providing a copy of Ancestor Trouble for my enjoyment and review.
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I literally inherited an interest in genealogy; there was my maternal grandfather’s family tree, researched by a distance relative, given to me at his death, and a published book of my father’s family. I became interested my unknown ancestors, and my husband’s family, and after joining discovered hundreds of ancestors, corresponded with relatives hitherto unknown, and found shocking secrets. There were also insights, such as seeing a great-great-great grandmother who was the image of my aunt.

Maud Newton’s interest started in girlhood. She heard stories of her ancestors and wondered how much was true, and how her ancestor’s troubles were related to her own experiences. In Ancestor Trouble, Newton explores the many ways our ancestors impact us through generational trauma, shared DNA, inherited traits, and even affect our spiritual and emotional lives. Her wide-ranging book delves into our interest in our ancestors, science, mysticism, mythology, religion, spiritualism, and psychology. At the heart of the book is her grappling with her own family inheritance of mental illness.

The older I get, the more I search backward, as though if I could know everyone who led to my father, who made him who he is, I would know him, too.

Ancestor Trouble by Maud Newton
Newton came from a troubled family. Her parents married because her father decided they would produce perfect children. Of course, they were imperfect people and produced imperfect people. An intelligent, accomplished man, her father held to antiquated ideals of white superiority and an obsession with eugenics, which she later traced to his family’s roots as slave owners. His grandfather was bipolar, a man of accomplishments and failures and rumored to have had thirteen marriages. Her mother embraced an evangelical Christianity and started her own church. She saw demons and angels. Newton traced her mother’s ancestors to Puritan England witches.

Learning how our DNA data is not private, and how it is and could be used, was unsettling. I had just seen a TV crime show that used DNA to create images of suspects, and discovered it is a real thing. The United States has no law forbidden use of DNA to create phenotyping.

I found the book often fascinating, and Newton’s family story engaging.

I received a free egalley from the publisher. My review is fair and unbiased.
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This was a well-written, interesting, and ultimately moving story.  Newton goes searching for her ancestors, in part because of her troubled relationships with her parents and their legacies in her life.  She begins with the genealogy part, researching in census and other online records to locate the people she came from.  Being from the south, she learns quickly about how many of her ancestors enslaved people, and how this does and does not connect with the racism she observed in her family growing up.

Because of her mistrust of her father and her estrangement from him, she does not even mention his name for fear of being sued - he sounds like a completely unpleasant person and it's hard to believe anyone would put up with him for two minutes.

Newton moves from genealogy, to DNA, to the complexities of accepting her ancestors as where she came from, without idealizing them.  Realizing that it would make no sense for her, a southern white woman, to try to pursue "ancestor work" using African or Native American models, she looks for ways to do ancestor work as someone of 100% European origins, and to use what she actually has, so to speak.  While a lot of the "ancestor work" she describes seems rather woo-woo to me (visualizing ancestral spirits and so on), the idea of thinking what ancestors might be "well" in a possible afterlife (because they were properly mourned and remembered after their death) vs. which ones might not be makes a sort of sense and I can see right away where a few people in my lineage would not be very well and which ones definitely would not be.

Ultimately, Newton finds a trove of writings from the 1960s and 70s by the great-great-aunt from whom she chose her pen name, and finds wit, intelligence, and virulent racism.  While this is a disappointment to her, she feels it's better to know.

In the final pages, she composes a message of forgiveness to her maternal line that I found extremely moving, since that's the line of mine that also contains a lot of complexity and strange resentment (although nothing like the intense levels of dysfunction Newton found in her family).  I took a quick photo of that paragraph so I can revisit it and think about it.

This is a worthwhile read for any white American who has ancestors.  Yes, that means all of us.
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Interesting and well-written, but a bit slow moving. If you like genealogy research, this book may appeal. Regarding the scholarly content on the history of ancestor worship: a little goes a long way.
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Sprawling, as the author said.  In depth, as well.  Unfortunately, tedious.  Though very well written, I think this will appeal to a limited audience only.  Even though I knew it was non-fiction, I expected something a little more revelatory or astounding, somewhere.
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(Spoiler alert!)
When I started reading this book, I had forgotten that it was a work of non-fiction.
As I was reading, I realized that the author was talking about herself and her family.
Yes, it was an interesting read. By the time I finished the book, I was wondering why I read it.
This is an in-depth dive into the author's ancestry. The impetus for writing the book seems to be her father, who was incredibly racist. So, I understood that she was searching back in her family tree to see where that racism came from.
She was definitely disappointed to find that the real Maud Newton, from whom she borrowed her name, was also a racist.
Somehow, I thought the book was going somewhere. I expected some revelation that would be astounding.
What I got from the end of the book was that, besides being a racist, her father was unfaithful to her mother and also a liar to every girlfriend he had after her.
Was I shocked that she cut off all contact with her father?
So, interesting but not a book I would recommend.
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In many ways, I was most interested in the author's diligent tracing of her family roots, especially once she recognized that both sides of her family had owned slaves,  To some degree, she was equally interested in learning more about her family  members who had ended up institutionalized, questioning her own emotional well-being at times. Unlike with the racism, which she has vowed to try to change and addresses in her personal life, it's a bit more difficult to address depression.

In the acknowledgments, I found it interesting that she included her step-father, the man who molested her but not her father, who she remains estranged, except for written correspondence. Perhaps there was some kind of forgiveness to the stepfather that could not happen with the father.  Since her father is an attorney, I also wondered if he'd find a way to make his daughter "pay" for writing this memoir. He's not the most likable character in this book.

"Ancestor Trouble" is  a book that many of can relate to since families are difficult, and family secrets rarely remain hidden. Even though I am not a person who seeks to find more about my family history, the present members have given me enough insight to not want to delve deeper, I enjoyed Newton's journey of searching and discovering
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Ancestor Trouble by Maud Newton is an absolutely fascinating and incredibly intimate personal journey into one woman's search for the true spine of her family's history. While reading, I couldn't stop thinking about what I might find if I actually put in the work to learn more about my own family. (Apparently I have a jewish great grandfather who left his wife and 3 kids in Brooklyn and was found, decades later, preaching in a rural midwestern church and with an entirely new family.)  I don't know that I'm ready to take that journey, but I absolutely loved being along for the ride with Maud Newton!!  And I just signed up for her newsletter because I don't want to miss any future essays or updates!!  Highly recommend!!
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5 stars
Not at all what I expected. I do feel there is a audience for this book. It is not for me. Thanks for the ARC of this book.
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Sprawling is the best way to describe this book. As the author admits towards the end, the way she writes is to approach a topic from several different angles, and that is apparent here. From family anecdotes, to records-based genealogy, to genetic testing and ancestor worship, Newton leaves no stone unturned to try and make sense of her complicated relationship with her immediate family, and ancestors further removed.
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