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An acclaimed writer goes searching for the truth about her wildly unconventional Southern family—and finds that our obsession with ancestors opens up new ways of seeing ourselves.
Maud Newton’s ancestors have vexed and fascinated her since she was a girl. Her mother’s father, who came of age in Texas during the Great Depression, was said to have married thirteen times and been shot by one of his wives. Her mother’s grandfather killed a man with a hay hook and died in an institution. Mental illness and religious fanaticism percolated through Maud’s maternal lines back to an ancestor accused of being a witch in Puritan-era Massachusetts. Maud’s father, an aerospace engineer turned lawyer, was an educated man who extolled the virtues of slavery and obsessed over the “purity” of his family bloodline, which he traced back to the Revolutionary War. He tried in vain to control Maud’s mother, a whirlwind of charisma and passion given to feverish projects: thirty rescue cats, and a church in the family’s living room where she performed exorcisms.
Their divorce, when it came, was a relief. Still, the meeting of her parents’ lines in Maud inspired an anxiety that she could not shake, a fear that she would replicate their damage. She saw similar anxieties in the lives of friends, in the works of writers and artists she admired. As obsessive in her own way as her parents, Maud researched her genealogy—her grandfather’s marriages, the accused witch, her ancestors’ roles in slavery and genocide—and sought family secrets through her DNA. But immersed in census archives and cousin matches, she yearned for deeper truths. Her journey took her into the realms of genetics, epigenetics, and the debates over intergenerational trauma. She mulled over modernity’s dismissal of ancestors along with psychoanalytic and spiritual traditions that center them.
Searching, moving, and inspiring, Ancestor Trouble is one writer’s attempt to use genealogy—a once-niche hobby that has grown into a multi-billion-dollar industry—to expose the secrets and contradictions of her own ancestors, and to argue for the transformational possibilities that reckoning with our ancestors offers all of us.
About the Author
Maud Newton has written for The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, The New York Times Book Review, and Oxford American. She grew up in Miami and graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in English and law.
“A marvel: absorbing, addictive, informative.”—Publishers Weekly
“Who are our ancestors to us? What do we inherit from them, and how do we grapple with their legacy? Ancestor Trouble drills deep into the roots and bones of Newton’s own family, and is a roadmap for all of us who long to understand, at the deepest level, where we come from.”—Dani Shapiro, author of Inheritance
“Whether they are writers, womanizers, preachers, or enslavers, Maud Newton soberly reckons with her ancestors in this absorbing narrative, as addictive as genealogy itself. In reflections ranging from the scientific to the spiritual, Newton builds a bridge between her and her ancestors that is fascinating, deeply moving, and sure to make every reader want to spend some time with their kin.”—Dionne Ford, co-editor of Slavery’s Descendants: Shared Legacies of Race and Reconciliation
“Here is a wise and unsparing journey through many generations of one family. Newton takes this extraordinary journey not only for herself, but to illuminate this present moment in this country we all love. ‘Look,’ she tells us. ‘This is America. This is how we came to be.’”—Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, author of The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois
“Maud Newton brings a historian’s rigor to the pursuit of family lore that has, by design or accident, shed significant details along the way. I will be feeling the aftershocks of this book for some time.”—Alexis Coe, New York Times bestselling author of You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington
“A haunting, thought-provoking, and utterly mesmerizing book.”—Karen Abbott, New York Times bestselling author of The Ghosts of Eden Park
“Newton’s incredibly smart hybrid of a memoir is essential reading for anyone interested in learning more about themselves through the prism of the past—which is to say, nearly everyone.”—Garrard Conley, New York Times bestselling author of Boy Erased
“Ancestor Trouble is a superbly written and meticulously researched book about the people and stories that shape us. An extraordinary work.”—Laila Lalami, author of The Other Americans
“One of the most uncompromising and compassionate books about the tangled web that binds us to our past.”—Maaza Mengiste, author of The Shadow King
“With cultural analysis, global historical contexts, and her own compelling hunt for family history, Maud Newton invites us to consider our ancestors with a reverence Western thought often forgets.”—Sarah Smarsh, New York Times bestselling author of Heartland