- By Sean Hooks
- October 21, 2022
The rich literary cocktail that is Ancestor Trouble.
Maud Newton, a fiery iconoclast among the first generation of lit bloggers in the early 2000s, expands her 2014 Harper’s cover story, “America’s Ancestry Craze,” into Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation, an eclectic nonfiction debut that’s one part Wild West, one part dirty South, and one part Eastern philosophy, with a splash of communal realpolitik and New Age woo-woo thrown in.
Ancestor Trouble may traffic in unironic uses of “spirituality” and “faith,” but Newton — a connoisseur of the literary world long used to sharing uncensored glimpses of herself — compels for the simplest of reasons: She is forthright and honest, a seeker. Born in Dallas in 1971 (birth name Rebecca, Maud by choice) into a lone-star lineage that’s highly entertaining on the page, the author has stated, “I’m drawn to things that are disturbing, unfair, profane, or tragic in some way. I think I’ve always been like this.”
Along with exhumations concerning her earliest predecessors (dating back to a 17th-century Massachusetts witch), Newton delivers on the promised subtitular reckoning and reconciliation. The former is with the sexual abuse perpetrated by her stepfather and the racism of her otherwise brilliant birth father. The latter is with that most abstruse and potentially pretentious of literary topics — the Past — about which Newton manages to mostly eschew the soapbox and hook readers.
“Granny had grown up poor on the outskirts of Dallas and later made her way in town, and both her origins and her tenacity were evident in everything she said,” Newton writes. Her own tenacious research began in 2000 with that granny’s father, Dallas County Local of Socialists member Zone Harrison Johnston. Other ancestors explored include Newton’s great-grandfather Charley Bruce, who, in 1916, applied a lethal hay hook to a former friend in Dallas, the circumstances of which provide one of the book’s most memorable excavations as Newton tracks Charley through the historical record from Georgia to Texas. Rape and revenge also figure into this story in un-sensationalized, sensitively handled ways I won’t spoil here.
Southern roots infuse Newton’s quest narrative as she scrutinizes the genealogy industry and the larger subject of genetics, from which it sprang. She ranges from genome mapping to 23andMe, from Carl Jung to Henry Louis Gates, from the evolutionary-psychology canon to the emergent field of epigenetics (epigenetics is to genetics as metaphysics is to physics) to Buddhist meditation expert Ethan Nichtern on how “the conscious mind is not the originator of our experience but the recipient of our experience.”
Ancestor Trouble is undergirded by sleuthy noir notes that mix well with its author’s investigative prowess and law-scholar rigor. After Charley’s propulsive sequence concludes with a recounting of how he died — and with Newton placing his headstone — the author delves into her grandfather Robert Bruce and his reputed 13 marriages, including one to the wife who shot him. When Newton finally locates the sole surviving image of Granny and Robert (a large black-and-white print hanging in a Dallas restaurant), the tale attains a truly cinematic thrust.
Despite an initial suspicion that this text might not be sciencey enough for the eggheads or juicy enough for the gossipmongers, it is better for its liminality. Newton’s book — with its piquant personal observations that transcend memoir — belongs to the Southern literary lineage of Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers, of Eudora Welty and Katherine Anne Porter, and of Cormac McCarthy, Fred Chappell, and Newton’s mentor, Harry Crews.
“Not only is genealogy intertwined with stories humans have told themselves about their beginnings,” she writes, “it’s also an integral ingredient of recorded human history and thought. By some reckonings, it’s the oldest form of logic.”
She sees humanity as a continuum, and though Ancestor Trouble strays into regions that strike me as a tad cockamamie (“What color do you associate with this line of your family?”; “I set up an ancestor altar…”), these comprise but a small part of the whole. And in her defense, Newton — raised by a mother who believed in demons and a stepfather who blamed his molestation of Newton on his own possession — has luminary antecedents in other authors marinated in the mystical, most notably William James and Simone Weil. Blake, Lawrence, and Yeats also thought “empiricism has its limits” and that “there’s got to be more than scientific materialism.”
In other words, what some see as hokum might just be Newton’s way of saying, “Trust your instincts.”
Instincts are embedded in our DNA, after all, so I can forgive a dash of hooey if it’s Newton’s way of parsing her trauma. In the end, Ancestor Trouble is a text that conducts cultural analysis with both a microscope and a telescope, offering a forward-looking progressivism that also interrogates the past. It’s a book committed to hybridity and adaptation, to a mélange, a combinatory ethos, a cocktail.
Sean Hooks is originally from New Jersey. He now lives in Dallas and teaches at the University of Texas at Arlington. He has also resided in Las Vegas, Berlin, and Los Angeles. He holds a BA-Liberal Arts from Drew University, an MFA-Fiction from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and an MA-English from Loyola Marymount University. His works have appeared recently in Cleveland Review of Books, Los Angeles Review of Books, the Creative Independent, BOMB Magazine, Socrates on the Beach, the Molotov Cocktail, and Wisconsin Review.