DISTANT RELATIONS by Victoria Freeman


How My Ancestors Colonized North America
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In prose that is often congested, if always earnest, a Canadian teacher and journalist examines 400 years of her family’s history with Native Americans.

Freeman spent seven years researching this ambitious family saga cum history of North America cum analysis of white-Indian relations. Her endnotes bristle with references to myriads of standard histories, family documents, interviews, public records. She devotes sections to the families who produced her (Wheeler, Eliot, Stanton, Janes, Harris, and Freeman), tries to rehearse as much of their lives as she can and place it in the context of larger historical events, and speculates about the meaning of it all. She makes a number of interesting discoveries, a number of piquant observations, e.g., a Native American would have been horrified to see 16th-century Salisbury, England (the stench, the filth). She notes that the aboriginal people encountered by the Puritans had no concept of hell (making it difficult to threaten them with eternal damnation). And when she enters the minds and imaginations of her ancestors, she can achieve dramatic effects. After a massacre of some Pequots (in which gory business her ancestor Thomas Stanton played a role), she muses, “I wish I knew if he was elated or horrified.” In the earlier segments she is reduced to making such comments often, since the documentary record for obvious reasons is slight. She tries to compensate by offering up summaries of known historical events—too often accomplished with long block quotations from her reading. But it doesn’t work. We lose track of her narrative, then lose interest. The story strengthens when she reaches the late-19th and early-20th centuries, and her text brightens considerably towards the end with accounts of her recent visits to New England sites important in her story. (One ancestor’s house has been replaced by a driveway for a Dunkin’ Donuts.) Her conclusions—though compassionate and sincere—are overwrought and fairly obvious.

A thick, heavy loaf in need of leavening. (5 maps, 8 pp. b&w photographs)

Pub Date: Nov. 15th, 2002
ISBN: 1-58642-053-4
Page count: 568pp
Publisher: Steerforth
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 2002