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Book Review: ‘Ancestor Trouble,’ by Maud Newton

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.” Newton contemplates epigenetics, neuroscience, genograms, forced sterilization, kinship, spiritual practices and the “deeper connections, deeper questions” of material objects once held close by her ancestors. She discusses ancient thinkers like Pythagoras, who may have believed that sperm absorbed vapors (“instructions for building a child”) as it ribboned through a father’s body, and contemporary authors like Alexander Chee and Emily Raboteau who, like Newton, have written extensively about their families. She rolls through crests and troughs, makes discoveries and hits roadblocks, her narrative paralleling her own internal oscillations as someone on the “lower end” of the bipolar spectrum. 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.

What will Newton do if she completes her quest? What would anyone do if fully enlightened about who they are or how they came to be? Could we invent ourselves anew if what we found was ugly or unwanted? And how does our DNA fit into all of this? Newton tests hers. While the results indicate her muscle composition compares to that of “elite power athletes,” Newton was uncoordinated and asthmatic, a “tiny, waifish, spectral child” with “allergies to mangos, citrus rind, most pollens and most detergents and soaps.” Genetics matter, but it’s hard to say what we’ll inherit and what we won’t. Human traits are about as predictable as roulette. If we consider our genetic inheritances, our environments and experiences and the capriciousness of chance, to what extent, finally, are we autonomous? My questions demonstrate the strength of Newton’s work: She asks questions that make you ask more, which is also how genealogical inquiries unfold.

Maybe there’s something mystical and inexplicable about identity, as Newton suggests and explores through her affection for Maude, the source of her pseudonym, whose story threads throughout the book. Maude becomes a touchstone, a reflection, a possible “kindred spirit”: a thinker, a writer (“of sorts”), a fighter, maybe a feminist! But a discovery about Maude compels Newton to admit, “I’d accidentally honored the parts of my family history that trouble me most.”

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. She asks, “What, concretely, day to day, can I do?” She realizes it’s a question that can’t be answered simply; even asking it causes discomfort for some. “When I tried to discuss my family’s past with other white people,” Newton writes, “they were eager to change the subject.”

One concrete thing Newton has done is write this book, which wrestles with the past and is “as explicit as possible” about painful history — 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. And it is the story of each of us, of identity a complex configuration made of chromosomes, evidence and accidents; internal and external traumas; global and local pressures; fixed and fluctuating selves; spiritual and environmental modes. It’s cut peaches at your grandmother’s table, cigarette smoke haloing your mother’s head or abusers at the edge of your bed. With knowledge, persistence and an open heart, as this sweeping investigation illustrates, we have some control of who we want to be, even if it’s only adopting a name without the letter “e,” acknowledging bequests of oppression or honoring an ancestor with a proper grave.

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