This is a non-fiction work very aptly subtitled, A Journey into Family, Legend and the Genes that Bind Us. Read over a period of several weeks, I found it to be inspirational because I have worked for a long time on an anecdotal family history which has been overwhelming at times, comforting because of the set-backs and discouragements the writer faced constantly and informative because the author went into new and challenging territory to try and get closure for her search. Had I known that the plot would be so exciting and the high point so uplifting, I would have read much more quickly but I am glad that I did not for I was able to absorb and savour the considerable quantity of information presented.
The epigraph from George Bernard Shaw’s Immaturity set an encouraging tone for the book:
“If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.”
The family tree diagrams and the maps of southern India and the island of Jamaica were much appreciated: all too often these materials are missing from books which constantly refer to particular persons or geographical locations. The photographs too were just enough to give the reader a sense of the main characters involved in this search for ancestors. The Paul Crooks novel, Ancestors, was not listed at my local library but I might try a wider search for same although the factual story by itself was quite satisfying: it is always interesting to see how the fiction and the non-fiction compare.
The Prologue and its background of the author’s experience investigating the SARS(severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak in Toronto, her entry into a maternity ward in which a medical student had developed the symptoms the day she was admitted and her period of quarantine lead nicely into her family history project. “What I saw in my daughter, in that quarantined room, was the past and future all at once.”
“Ten years later, if I try to pinpoint when the desire to know became the determination to find out, or, why my daughter would know about DNA before she knew how to read, or how I became preoccupied with collecting it, from both the living and the dead, I keep returning to that picture (of her daughter taken forty-eight hours after she was born). The birth of any child pushes the past into the present. It just so happened that Jade was born into a time and place where the clocks seemed to have stopped. An unexpected gift of time had come with her arrival – six long days we spent under quarantine when the city had gone half-mad with fear and confusion.”
“She was the first baby in our family in more than a dozen years. Since no one could visit, everyone called. They asked the questions people do when a new life appears: What does she look like? Who does she look like?”
“The past is never lost, not completely; we carry it with us, in us, and we look for it in our parents and in our children, to give us our bearings and ground us in the continuity of life. And the past accommodates. It shows off in dazzling, unpredictable ways – a familiar gait, a gesture, the timbre of a voice, a blot of colour along the tailbone.. The body has a long memory indeed. Written in the quirky tongue of DNA and wound into the nucleus of nearly every human cell are biological momentos of the family who came before us. ”
The author explains that she had written about advances in genetics for much of her professional life but she had “never been tempted to know what secrets my[her] own DNA harboured until it became possible to use genetic testing to learn about ancestry.”
It was her great-grandfathers who most intrigued her: one was a sea captain and the other a circus juggler (hence the book’s title). Both men had appeared in India in the nineteenth century, one died in his early thirties and the other disappeared. And so her search began. She didn’t expect to be pushed “to the moral brink”and have to “wonder about the existence of ghosts and propriety of grave-robbing”. Nor did she ” foresee that unearthing the roots of my [her] family could bury the story of someone else’s.” “But,” as she acknowledges, “a genetic journey has a way of bending the road in ways you might never imagine.”
In almost every family there is at least one person who fits the role of family chronicler in one way or another: it might be an actual researcher, or a photographer or just someone who is inspired by what he/she knows of a grandparent or an uncle or a distant cousin who once wrote a book or robbed a bank. It often starts with curiosity and ends in the compilation of an initial family tree which is passed to the next generation and which grows and grows through several generations. In the case of Carolyn Abraham, the search is carried to the nth degree and is a fascinating one to read about in itself. It is a bonus that a reader can pick up tips about how to begin such a search and what avenues to consider if one meets up with an obstacle in the course of one’s search.
In some sections, the journey Carolyn makes is fascinating in itself. She makes several trips with her parents and one of these is to the Nilgiri Hills in India and another is to Jamaica. In India she took part in a ritual called the blessing of the temple pachyderm. A donation of a few rupees is collected by the elephants themselves using their trunks. Apparently it is a common ritual in southern India but here is the author’s description of it:
“…it meant something to take part in that ancient Hindu ritual. It may have been a sacred rite to long-forgotten ancestors, before we, like so much of the rest of the world, split from our tribes and our gods. The symbolism of the act was powerful to me all the same, maybe even spiritual on some indefinable level – to feel small and vulnerable inside this big, timeless rock, on my knees before a beast that could ch]rush me with a sneeze – the six-tonne pet of the Kurumbas; the workhorse of the British; an icon of wisdom, memory, India and, of course, the circus.”
The journey to Jamaica is of equal interest and includes finding the sight of an ancient plantation and a grave of a plantation owner buried in 1740 aged 32 years. Then there is a major mystery: the sea Captain’s quadroon grandfather, according to records and testimonials, managed to become “a gentleman” by 1833 which was five years BEORE slavery ended on the island. The trail of property sales and business agreements that help to sort this out is one of those searches that can be fascinating in its degree of complication.
I have said little about the DNA side of the author’s investigation but that is also another very informative aspect of the search. Scientific concepts such as mitochondrial DNA and the Y chromosome and haplogroups and the interpretation of test results are explained thoroughly and are not burdensome. Humour is also employed by the author to lighten some of the material: “The Y is a hidden record of history’s winners and losers, a short volume on the sex lives of powerful men – you lead, you breed.” Interesting anecdotal information to illustrate statements such as the preceding one is also included such as the bit about “sixteen million men carrying the Y chromosome belonging to the paternal line of Genghis Khan.” DNA searching is not claimed to be infallible and examples are provided. DNA testing also became more sophisticated even over the period of Carolyn’s search for her two great-grandfathers. Even those with no liklihood/or need to use DNA testing for their own family history work, should find the pertinent information on this topic of considerable interest. The author often returned to the paper trail when other sources led to no results and a combination of all the search methods was standard practice throughout her journey.
For me, the author brought the book full circle when she summed up her search as follows:
“I have come to regard our juggler, or his art at least, as the metaphor for it all: millions of nucleotides in continuous motion, tossed up, generation after generation, and scattered by the wind and by warriors, by the kidnapped and the curious, the hungry, the greedy, the pious, the scared and the lovesick. The forbears of us all.”
P.S. The history of the single-braid hairstyle shown on the cover is revealed near the end of the book: this kind of anecdotal information makes this book a joy as well as a wealth of information!
“Judy and Walter Walt Ribke lived on twelve up-and-down acres…on the eastern boundary of Addison County” in Vermont. Judy had a cyst removed from her womb and five years later her uterus collapsed. The couple knew they would not have a child. “In her rational moments she allowed herself to want nothing more than spending time with a child. It didn’t have to be her own, it didn’t have to be beautiful or smart, it just had to be near for her to care about it and giver that taste of renewal and possibility that children represent. She was calm about her desire, but every now and then, alone, she yearned like a prisoner yearns for friends beyond the wall.”
She began volunteering to visit people who were dying. Walt is very encouraging and supportive: “Your beautiful face every Thursday. He’ll be cured, Judy. He’ll live forever.”
“They bought paintings and a car and a dog named Murphy, but with every purchase and passing Sunday was a feeling that life was a collection of gestures and habits and it was hard to find surprises when most surprises were planned.”
Walt was philosophical. He still grieved for his first wife who had died in a car accident. “You can still stand and scream at the trucks but they’ll run you down; you can hop on and go where they go; you can find all sorts of ways to avoid them. You can adjust, instead of accepting, and you can make your own world.” “Walt had wanted a baby with his first wife but she was taken away so young. With Judy he had never doubted it would happen, but it hadn’t and now it wouldn’t. ” “He wanted what she wanted, and was sad that he couldn’t provide it.”
They considered adoption but the waiting lists were very long. At the local bar called Viv’s one day the proprietor passed along a copy of Life magazine to Walt and an article entitled “Conversation with a Chimp”. It was about some chimps in Oklahoma who had been taught to speak in sign language and it included a photo of a baby chimpanzee in a diaper and sitting on a woman’s lap. “As he drove home, the thoughts of Judy, the photo of the chimpanzee in the diaper, the beer and the bleakness of February all swam in his head in a lonely and protozoan soup, till lightening struck, an idea was born, and Walt began making inquiries into how he could acquire a chimpanzee.”
If you are thinking maybe you don’t want to read any further, stop thinking that way. The story of Walt and Judy and Louee alternates with a story which occurs in the Girdish Institute which began in the 1920s and of which David Kennedy became the director in the 1970s. Both sides of the story are informative, humourous at times and very sad at times. Both stories are stories which will enrich the reader and raise her/his level of awareness considerably. I was reminded of how powerful this book was a few days ago when I learned that
“more than 100 government-owned (USA) chimpanzees at the New Iberia Research Center, a laboratory in Louisiana, will be retired to the federal chimpanzee sanctuary Chimp Haven, providing sufficient funds are in place to construct the necessary facilities. It is estimated that this will cost upwards of $2.3 million, funds the government will not be able to provide in their entirety due to its spending cap having been reached.
Many of the chimps, some of them now over 50 years of age, will have endured a life-time being subjected to oftentimes invasive medical tests.
The process toward liberating chimpanzees from biomedical research facilities has been a long one.
In 2011, the Institute of Medicine issued a report in which it concluded the majority of research conducted on chimpanzees is unnecessary. After a period of consultation, it was recommended that all but 50 chimpanzees be fully retired.”
“The Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act of 2011, which requires the phasing-out of federally supported invasive research on Great Apes and for retiring government-owned animals to be sent to sanctuaries, continues to languish in Congress. Privately-funded invasive research on chimps is still ongoing, and with little remedy yet in sight. Certainly, there is still a great deal of work to be done on this issue, but the above video shows in clear terms why the work must continue.”
The above information was learned on the Care2.com site. There is also an interesting video available on the same site which shows lab research chimps coming out into the outdoors for the first time in many years. We need to be faced with these realities: Colin McAdam has certainly done his part to try and raise our awareness. Fortunately for us he has also given us a great story.
The first poetry book I have included on this blog. I am pleased to say that I enjoyed it. It is from the perspective of an eighteen year old woman working in a corn packing plant for the summer in the late 1980s. She has a boyfriend, Clinton, and they both work in the warehouse section of the plant where women do not generally work. The onion man works there also.
I found it interesting that three London, Ontario high schools are named – Central, CCH and Beal – two of which I worked at for short periods of time. This makes it a perfect tool for creative writing classes especially in the London area.
Deceptively simple. Flows smoothly like a story or a diary. Conversational at times, reflective at other times. Deals with issues of gender and class in the workplace, family pressures, educational choices and boyfriends.
I think people who never read poetry might be surprised at what a fun read this is and the memories and discussions it might generate.
is better than
being in high
school. I don’t
agree at all,
but if I tell him
I don’t mind
he’ll think I’m
Some people like London,
I say. Some people think it’s
a nice place to live. -Like
who? he asks. -Like
immigrants I say. -I bet if
they were born here they
wouldn’t. I bet they’d think
it was just another shitty town.
Kathryn Mockler teaches poetry and screen writing at the University of Western Ontario. She received her MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia and her BA in Honours English and Creative Writing from Concordia University.
“[A] wonderfully messy and layered family portrait.” Publishers Weekly
There are a number of much stronger superlatives used to describe this novel on its cover designed like a fast food wrapper but I found this one from Publishers Weekly to be particularly apt. The Oxford Modern English Dictionary defines messy as 1. untidy or dirty. 2. causing or accompanied by a mess. 3. difficult to deal with; full of awkward complications. I particulary like the third definition as pertaining to families and it certainly fits the Middlesteins.
The first chapter is entitled, Edie, 62 pounds. This is Edie Herzen, age five. “She was a cement block of flesh.” She hated taking the stairs up four flights to the Herzen apartment. Edie’s mother was a big woman, “nearly six feet tall, with a powerhouse of a body. Edie’s father was tall with long, lanky limbs, a thin chest and protruding ribs. He was primal about food but never gained a pound. Edie’s parents agreed about how to have sex and they agreed that ” food was made of love, and they could never deny themselves a bite of anything they desired.” This was extended into a philosophy you might say: “Food was made of love, and love was made of food, and if it could stop a child from crying, then there was nothing wrong with that either.” We learn all this in the first chapter.
In the second chapter we meet Robin who is Edie’s daughter and all grown up. She has sown her wild oats in New York and returned to the Chicago area where she teaches school. I liked her because she had a tomato tin on her desk in her New York classroom covered with paper and labelled the “Hear Me Can” that her students could put notes in to tell her about anything they were upset about. Anyway when we meet Robin her mother Edie is scheduled for surgery in a week for the arterial disease that she has developed in her legs as a complication associated with diabetes. The third chapter is entitled Edie, 202 Pounds and in it we learn that Edie had a successful academic experience in high school and went to law school but her parents both died while she was in law school and she experienced a set back of sorts hence the 202 pounds.
In the chapters to follow the reader learns more and more details about the individual members of the Middlestein family, Edie, of course, Richard her husband, Robin and Benny the children and Rachelle the daughter-in-law and Emily and Josh the grandchildren. here are some snippets to help introduce you(all are direct quotations but I have left out the paragraph divisions to save space):
Rachelle and Benny at home: “”Tell me you at least got a salad,” she said. “Something with nutritional value.” Benny pulled a large plastic container of salad out of a bag and waved it at Rachelle. ”What am I, crazy?” he said. ”I don’t want to spend the night in the doghouse.” “We don’t have a doghouse,” said Josh. “Or a dog.” ”It’s an expression,” said Benny ”A joke. You’re no fun. When did this kid turn into no fun?”
Emily and Rachelle: “”I’m never going to be that good,” said Emily mournfully. She crossed her arms and locked her thumbs under her armpits. “I’m going to look like an idiot in front of all my friends.” ”You’re going to do the best that you can,” said Rachelle. “But what if my best totally sucks?” said Emily. She wiped away a tear, and another, and then got up and left the room, dragging Rachelle’s heart slowly with her.”
Richard about Edie: “You know your mother, I can’t get her to do anything she doesn’t want to do.”
Rachelle on Edie: “…nowhere was it in her job description as wife and mother and homemaker to be the one to let her mother-in-law know that her teeth were turning to shit.”
Benny to Rachelle about his mother: “Do we have to talk about this now? he said. The chill of the air and the smoke from the joint united into one giant cloud. He ground out the rest of the joint under his shoe. “When would you like to talk about it? she said. … “Never?” he said. ”She’s your mother,” she said. “You’re not worried?”
Robin in a discussion with her boyfriend Daniel: “Is it the right leg or the left?” ”You know I(Robin) can’t even remember. I think I’ve blocked it out. Isn’t that terrible? Am I a terrible person?” All of it had been a surprise, though it shouldn’t have been. Her mother refused to eat properly or exercise, and in the last decade she had grown obese. Two years ago she had been diagnosed with diabetes.”
Robin and Edie: “Stop it,” said Robin. “Don’t pull that on me. Don’t try to make me feel bad for being me.”
Family battles rooted in relational challenges and personal fears. People caring and at a loss as to how to demonstrate that care. Parents and grandparents struggling to love their children and grandchildren while not over indulging them and to cope simultaneously with a rapidly changing social scene. Contemporary issues familiar to all of us. All these along with an excellent sense of humour and a fairly good dollop of hope. A quick read about real people and issues.
On Saturday, November 3, 2013 at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto, I attended a Round Table discussion entitled Gods, Ghosts and UFOs hosted by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer and including Hari Kunzru, Amanda Leduc and Mary Swan (brief notes on the work of each included at the end of this post). Just a day before this event I had read approximately 50 pages of Leduc’s The Miracles of Ordinary Men and been surprised by my own commitment to continue reading. After the Round Table and one other event I returned home and ordered Leduc’s title from the library. I started where I left off and I finished it. The Round Table discussion was billed as tackling the subjects of faith and religion in their work and writing about the unknown and the knowable. The IFOA program indicates that Amanda Leduc’s novel “examines so-called religious truths and explores the intersection of pleasure and pain.”
I identified with Father Jim’s experience in the book when Sam has gone to see him at his retreat just outside of Tofino:
“Holy Shit,” said a voice (as soon as the door opened).
He [Sam] turned and curled the wing in all at once. “Hello Father.”
There he was, six-foot-four, with his winking white collar. His beard had more grey in it now, but his hands were tanned and he stil looked more like a lumberjack than a priest…His eyes were shrewd and blue, and they weren’t looking at the Sam that eveyone else in the world could see.”
“I think,” he said, “you have some interesting things to tell me.”
And Sam does indeed have some interesting things to discuss with Father Jim. He also had come to get Father Jim to come back with him to participate in his mother’s funeral and so on the drive back to Vancouver the two men would discuss Sam’s concerns.
Sam has a cat, by the way, named Chickenhead’ and Father Jim and Chickenhead, at this point in the story, are the only two beings who can visually see what has happened to Sam. Chickenhead will also allow Father Jim to pet him, making Jim the only other person in the world who is allowed to do this. So, interesting cast so far eh?
The other characters in the novel are every bit as distinctive as though we have met so far. There is Timothy who lives on the streets (by choice) of Vancouver and his older sister Lilah(Delilah) who finds and feeds her younger brother on a regular basis. And there is Israel Riviera, Lilah’s boss and Roberta, Lilah and Timothy’s mother who lives in Victoria and is dealing with cancer. Sam is a high school teacher when we first meet him and one of his students, Emma, is also a minor character in the story.
The novel does, as stated, examine so-called religious truths. Early on, Father Jim says to Sam: “…God – you have no idea about God. I have no idea about God. All we can do is guess, and try to follow where those guesses might lead.”
Sam finds Timothy curled up on a grate and befriends him because they are both dealing with the same unusual circumstance. In a discussion one day, Timothy asks Sam what they should do now. Sam says, “We watch, and we wait.”
“For God,” he said. Finally. “I think that’s what we’re waiting for.”
In another discussion Sam says he still can’t believe that hardly anyone can see them.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” said the boy. “No one sees God anymore.”
And Father Jim says in another discussion with Sam and Timothy : “You can’t talk about God or live through a miracle, without eventually seeing something else. Something other than God.” and this is related to what the IFOA program refers to as ”the intersection of pleasure and pain” which is another subplot in this rather complex story.
There is major material here for discussion and this brave young writer has dared to tackle very controversial issues. Bravo!
Leduc has published short stories, essays and articles in Canada, the USA and the UK and is a co-creator of the Bare It for Books calendar being sold to benefit PEN Canada. Mary Swan has published the novel The Boys in the Trees and her latest is called My Ghosts. Hari Kunzru from the UK is the author of three novels and has won a Somerset Maugham Award and the Push Cart Prize among others. The novel he was discussing is Gods Without Men. Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer has a novel coming out in January called All the Broken Things. She has been published in Granta Magazine, The Walrus and Storeyville.