A slow retracing of the roots of one of America's earliest—and most racially diverse—families.
Winch (History/Univ. of Massachusetts, Boston; A Gentleman of Color, 2003, etc.) explores real-estate tycoon Jacques Clamorgan's rise to prominence in St. Louis in the late 18th century, as well as the entangling aftermath of the land and children he left behind. “This is a tale about money, land, power, and the nation's obsession with race,” writes the author—all of which she explores within the single Clamorgan family line. The family was full of colorful characters, such as the biracial Apoline Clamorgan, the daughter of Jacques, who employed sexuality as a tool for her own advancement; and Louis, Apoline's son, who used his street smarts to become “a man of prominence” throughout St. Louis. Of the many branches of the twisted family tree, the story of Cyprian Clamorgan, Apoline's youngest son, proves most captivating. Though he easily passed for a white person, his primary power was unrelated to race, but in his ability to swindle. Cyprian's varied schemes pegged him as a notorious fraud who regularly spent time in the courtroom, earning a number of enemies along the way. Yet perhaps the most engaging aspect of the Clamorgan story isn't what the family was, but what they might have been. Winch notes that if Jacques's vast land claims had been recognized, St. Louis might be called Clamorganville today. Likewise, with the proper schooling and connections, the gun-toting, scheming Cyprian might have become a governor or a “leading African-American writer, challenging the nation of the post–Civil War to examine anew its understanding or race.”
A tale well worth telling, though the stilted pace may limit the book’s appeal to general readers.