a Reckoning and a Reconciliation
Maud Newton's ancestors have vexed and fascinated her since she was a girl. Her mother's father, who came of age during the Great Depression in Texas, was supposedly married thirteen times, and survived being shot in the stomach by one of his wives. His father purportedly killed a man in the street with a hay hook, and later died in a mental institution. On her father's side, a Massachusetts ancestor was accused of being a witch, who cast sickness on her neighbor's ox and was later tried in court for causing the death of a child. Maud's father had a master's in aerospace engineering on scholarship from an Ivy League university and was valedictorian of his law school class; he also viewed slavery as a benevolent institution that should never have been disbanded, and would paint over the faces of brown children in her storybooks. He was obsessed with maintaining the purity of his family bloodline, which he could trace back to the days of the Revolutionary War. Her mother was a whirlwind of charisma and passions that could become obsessions; she kept over thirty cats and birds in a tiny two-bedroom apartment, and later started a church in her living room, where she would perform exorcisms. Maud's parents' marriage was acrimonious, their divorce a relief. But the meeting of their lines in her was something she could not shake. She signed up for an online account and began researching her genealogy. She found records of marriages and trials, wills in which her ancestors gave slaves to their spouses and children. The search took over her life. But as she dabbled in DNA testing and found herself sunk in census archives at 1 o'clock in the morning, it was unclear to her what she was looking for. She wanted a truth that would set her free, in a way she hadn't identified yet. This book seeks to understand why the practice of genealogy has become a multi-billion-dollar industry in contemporary America, while also mining the secrets and contradictions of one singularly memorable family history.
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