One man’s journey into his family’s past and a sociologist’s meditation on white America’s history of greed and genocide.
When Johnson (The First Thing and the Last, 2010, etc.) asked his dying father where he wished his ashes to be placed, the response that it made no difference to him set the author on a journey to the Midwest to learn about his father and his Norwegian forefathers. His journal of that solo trip, often an hour-by-hour record of staying in bleak hotels and driving through disappearing towns, is steeped in his shame and grief for the injustice committed by white settlers who destroyed or exiled the people that occupied the land they wanted and claimed as their own. The kind relatives and friendly people he meets along the way seem oblivious to the history that torments Johnson, shrugging it off as a war over land that their side won. Finding the cemetery where his great-grandfather was buried, he secretly dug a hole for his father’s ashes, doing, as he writes, “what I could with what I was given.” It was not a satisfactory moment. What it means to be white, what it means to be American, and what it means to be from a place and to belong to it are questions that Johnson raises throughout the book. He is painfully aware that as a descendant of those who took the land from others, dispossessing and displacing them, he is today the beneficiary of acts he did not perform. “It has been my destiny to go down into the cellars of this nation’s history and then return,” he writes. “In doing that, I have had to become familiar with dark nights of the soul, to grow accustomed to the belly of the whale.”
Readers uncomfortable with the author’s message may wish that he did not repeat it so often, and those expecting a son’s gentle memoir will be in for a surprise. This is a difficult journey.