A debut fictional autobiography focuses on an African American woman who searches her ancestry and uncovers an identity-shaking, decades-old secret.
Raised in Virginia, the product of an extraordinarily dysfunctional family, 47-year-old Maria Butler decides to do some research into her paternal lineage. Her father, Ronald Butler, has long been out of her life so she turns to the internet. Over the years, she has already assembled considerable information about her mother’s side of the family. She learned her older “sister,” Angela, is actually her cousin. Maria’s mother, Darlene, was coerced by her own mom into raising her half sister’s baby, Angela, to “spare Myrtle the embarrassment of having a child out of wedlock with her first cousin, Ronald.” Yes, the same Ronald that married Maria’s mother. The unsavory trail down the Butler line proves less than comforting—Maria turns up a “series of police reports, death certificates filled with homicides, and police records with long prison sentences.” But when she sends her DNA to the company 23andMe, she finds a link to a Texas Vietnam War hero, Samuel Anthony “Tony” Purcell. It turns out that Tony, not Ronald, is her biological father. Her given name was “Francis Marie Purcell.” She also discovers she has an older brother, Brice, who was left in Texas when her mother returned to Virginia with 3-year-old Maria. With the major reveals disclosed up front, Baxter’s narrative lacks dramatic tension. Even for fiction, the tale crosses the line of credulity. The combination of Maria’s mother’s family (the Sampsons) and the wealthy, prolific Purcells, plus the multiple, intertwined relationships among siblings, half siblings, and more, will leave readers scrambling to keep track of the over-packed cast. Adding to the confusion, the author rarely provides clear timelines, frequently jumping back and forth between present-day accounts and backstories. Still, the articulate, conversational prose is engaging and the book ends on a high note, with Maria asserting: “I would…learn…invaluable lessons about forgiveness and respect” and “I would learn how to build and support relationships.”
A rambling family tale with an underlying message extolling the virtues of acceptance and gratitude.