An intelligent, thoughtfully researched memoir.



A British nonfiction writer and critic explores the story of her family’s past and its place within the larger narrative of 19th- and 20th-century British history.

Light (Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury, 2008) began the quest to discover her roots when her father was ill with cancer. With one parent’s death imminent, the author became alarmingly aware of both the passage of time and her own ignorance about a family past that had left few tangible traces. She began her research with visits to parish registers and other local and national archives. As Light became acquainted with her ancestors, she also sought to contextualize their lives. The more data she acquired, the more she realized that “without local history to anchor it, family history is adrift in time.” The picture that emerged on both sides of her family tree was of working-class men and women whose migrations across England had been “shaped and limited” by the Industrial Revolution. Light’s forebears—most of whom worked as bricklayers, needle-makers, servants, farmers, and sailors—were among the most impoverished in Britain. Yet some branches of her father’s family, for example, managed, through a combination of fortunate personal choices and historical timing, to rise into the middle classes and prosper as businessmen and respected members of the clergy. Light’s research also led to the discovery of secrets hidden within family tall tales that masked the realities of shame and failure. One of the most dramatic involved a great-grandmother who was “born in the workhouse; died in a madhouse.” A product of impoverished circumstances she could not control, this ancestor’s life also told a story of some of the policies and practices—such as the British Poor Laws—that defined English society at the time. Light’s book not only offers an insightful account of her proverbial “travels through time.” It also provides a new, more historically nuanced way of thinking about family history.

An intelligent, thoughtfully researched memoir.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-226-33094-5

Page Count: 328

Publisher: Univ. of Chicago

Review Posted Online: July 25, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2015

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A Churchill-ian view of native history—Ward, that is, not Winston—its facts filtered through a dense screen of ideology.


Custer died for your sins. And so, this book would seem to suggest, did every other native victim of colonialism.

Inducing guilt in non-native readers would seem to be the guiding idea behind Dunbar-Ortiz’s (Emerita, Ethnic Studies/California State Univ., Hayward; Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War, 2005, etc.) survey, which is hardly a new strategy. Indeed, the author says little that hasn’t been said before, but she packs a trove of ideological assumptions into nearly every page. For one thing, while “Indian” isn’t bad, since “[i]ndigenous individuals and peoples in North America on the whole do not consider ‘Indian’ a slur,” “American” is due to the fact that it’s “blatantly imperialistic.” Just so, indigenous peoples were overwhelmed by a “colonialist settler-state” (the very language broadly applied to Israelis vis-à-vis the Palestinians today) and then “displaced to fragmented reservations and economically decimated”—after, that is, having been forced to live in “concentration camps.” Were he around today, Vine Deloria Jr., the always-indignant champion of bias-puncturing in defense of native history, would disavow such tidily packaged, ready-made, reflexive language. As it is, the readers who are likely to come to this book—undergraduates, mostly, in survey courses—probably won’t question Dunbar-Ortiz’s inaccurate assertion that the military phrase “in country” derives from the military phrase “Indian country” or her insistence that all Spanish people in the New World were “gold-obsessed.” Furthermore, most readers won’t likely know that some Ancestral Pueblo (for whom Dunbar-Ortiz uses the long-abandoned term “Anasazi”) sites show evidence of cannibalism and torture, which in turn points to the inconvenient fact that North America wasn’t entirely an Eden before the arrival of Europe.

A Churchill-ian view of native history—Ward, that is, not Winston—its facts filtered through a dense screen of ideology.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-8070-0040-3

Page Count: 296

Publisher: Beacon

Review Posted Online: Aug. 18, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2014

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For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

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