Even though last year’s Family: A Century of Blood and Tears (Tate Publishing & Enterprises, 2007) by local author D.C. Force begins nearly a century ago, it comes across as semi-autobiographical.
The novel is detail-heavy, thick with conversation, and reaches too far to be an actual family history (even if the author had access to extensive journals and records). But it’s the story of a family based to some extent on fact, and likely closely tied to some personal history. After all, the novel is set in the Northern Midwest (near Chicago) where the author grew up, and the final chapters in the book follow the character Celeste from the Midwest into N.C.; the same journey made by Force.
More importantly, Family offers readers a glimpse into the struggle of immigrants to the U.S., and how many generations it takes to truly assimilate and overcome the hardships that go hand-in-hand with outsider status.
The book is broken into chapters by decade, beginning on New Year’s Day, 1911 and continuing in a trinumeral pattern (2/2/22, 3/3/33, etc.). That tool provides little more than organization, though it’s an interesting choice and throughout the novel suggests a more significant meaning might be revealed (it’s not).
The book begins with German immigrant Anja who suffers abuse at the hand of her third husband. Still, she won’t leave him for fear of being ostracized by the tight-knit immigrant community in which her children have been raised. A decade later it’s Anja’s daughter Katherine who begins the chapter in what becomes a typical fashion for Family: having a baby. Katherine has married outside of the Catholic faith and is living as an outcast. Like most of the book’s characters, her speech is thick with accent.
“No more German, Kate,” Katherine’s husband Otto insists. “We want the babies t’learn English, don’t we?”
And later Katherine says, “I t’ought I couldt go back to bedt for a while.” It’s like that, the accent only finally fading during the 1966 chapter when a teenaged Celeste consciously alters her inherited speech patterns
Besides the time line and accents, Force also uses a flashback function, weaving history into the present-day telling of the story. These past passages are noted by a smaller font, but run on often for several pages at a clip so the reader quickly loses the time frame. And, while the detailed past passages serve to flesh out and explain the present passages, they often seem superfluous. A reader could understand the thrust of Force’s story line without constantly delving back into history.
Overall, Family is an interesting read that sheds light on what it meant to be an immigrant throughout the 1900s. Tracing the legacy of poverty, lack of education, alcoholism, addiction, abuse, neglect and — finally — hope makes for a compelling if not always pleasant journey.
A family history-based book that does draw from actual fact is Black Mountain-based author Gari Carter‘s Troubled State: Civil War Journals of Franklin Archibald Dick (Truman State University Press, 2008). The text is culled from the journals of Carter’s great-great-grandfather, a prominent St. Louis attorney and Assistant Adjutant General to Captain Nathaniel Lyon.
Dick, it turns out, was loyal to the Union in the midst of politically-tirn St. Louis, and his journals demonstrate his own misgivings about the war and concerns as to his own future. It’s an intriguing premise for a book, but worth noting that readers without more than a passing interest in battles and Civil War history will find Troubled to be a dense and fairly dry read. The 205 pages of journal entries are packed with footnotes — often four to a page — and are followed by detailed biographies and a genealogy of the Dick Family.
But there are rare gems tucked into the pages: Images of Dick’s letters to military personnel, a letter from President Abraham Lincoln himself, and Dick’s of-the-moment perspective on momentous events. “Mr. Lincoln, the President, was assassinated last evng. in Washington …” he writes. “Here and now is the life of the Nation struck at by this vile rebellion. Mr. Lincoln throughout has failed to appreciate the wickedness of these people — pardons & pardons have fallen from him into the hands of guilty doers — who have turned again from their pardoned crimes, to again slay & destroy the defenders of Nation.”
Such weighty insights are an important contribution to the unfolding of American history, and Troubled, though scholarly and challenging, provides a keen look back in time.
Gari Carter reads from Troubled State at Malaprop’s on Wednesday, May 21. The event begins at 7 p.m.
— Alli Marshall, A&E reporter