Everyone’s family history is endlessly fascinating – to them. To avoid boring a non-family member, however, requires either great skill as a storyteller or extremely colorful relatives.
Journalist Weisman (Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World, not reviewed), who has contributed to the Los Angeles Times and New York Times magazines, among others, sets himself a daunting task in his multigenerational chronicle of his family’s journey from the Ukrainian shtetl to the Minnesota middle class. To the author’s surprise, this upward march includes innumerable lies that his relatives told to each other and to themselves in order to survive and prosper. The consequences of these lies, both moral and practical, are at the heart of the family saga, which is dominated in the retelling by Weisman’s father: football hero, labor lawyer, political insider, and domestic tyrant. While his relationships with his family make for painful reading, Weisman skillfully conveys how his father’s character was shaped by a profound insecurity that allowed him to achieve traditional success but lessened him as a person. In reaching this insight, Weisman does what we all do when we reach adulthood: see our parents not as unassailable archetypes but as flawed human beings. As the French say, to understand all is to forgive all. Despite his attempt to understand his family heritage, Weisman seems a long way from fully forgiving. There is much unresolved bitterness here and an adolescent instinct to make himself the center of attention. In relating the discovery of his mother’s long-hidden abortion, why else interject: “How fathomless the loss. Because I’d been there.”
Despite some fine writing and genuinely interesting social history, this exploration of the self through the lens of family history is too narrow a subject to sustain this lengthy narrative.