In 2014, the well-known literary blogger Maud Newton wrote a cover story for Harper’s Magazine titled “America’s Ancestry Craze.” Now, in her first book, Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation, she significantly expands on that piece, blending a revealing family memoir with a well-researched and thoughtful exploration of heredity and genealogy.
Newton introduces a large cast of characters from her lineage, some of whom were accused of murder and witchcraft. The conflict-filled marriage of her parents—a father from whom she’s been estranged for two decades and who would welcome the return of slavery, and a mother who believes in demonic possession and once led a fundamentalist church in her living room—provides rich narrative material, as do Newton’s often moving reflections on her markedly different relationships with her Texas and Mississippi grandmothers.
In the most incisive and tough-minded chapters of the book, Newton confronts the twin “monstrous bequests” of her ancestors: their ownership of enslaved people and involvement with the dispossession of America’s Indigenous population. She was able to trace her father’s forebears’ slaveholding back to 1816, which she more or less expected. But in the process, she made the unpleasant discovery that there are also slave owners in her maternal lineage, and that she’s descended from Massachusetts settlers who expropriated the lands of native tribes through treachery and violence.
As absorbing as it may be, Newton’s family story is only one element of her account. Ancestor Trouble broadens into a much deeper excavation of the subject of ancestry that ranges widely across an abundance of topics, among them the allure and danger of websites like 23andMe and Ancestry.com and the spiritual practice of ancestor veneration. She also investigates controversies in cutting-edge DNA research, acknowledging that apparent scientific advances are not always unalloyed goods.
Newton’s family history is uniquely hers, but her book arms anyone who’s ever been tempted to visit their own ancestry in a serious way with a host of provocative questions to consider.