Brutal honesty... Paragon of persistence... Blazing versatility... Role model for all family historians... These are a few of the cryptic notes I jotted as I read Power in the Blood: A Family Narrative, by Linda Tate. I was struck by the impact of the basic story, and my appreciation deepened as I considered the craft and research involved in writing this gripping six generation tale.
Linda's brutal honesty was fascinating. She tip-toed into the story, occasionally letting silence speak louder than words. Early in the narrative, she alluded to things that happened with her father in secret places. She never specifically filled in those details, but later disclosures gave more substance to assumptions. Two accounts, written as heavily researched interpretations of the lives of the grandmother she dimly remembered with the greatest affection and that grandmother's grandmother, were even more explicit, based on collective family memories and legends. Linda was brutally honest about her own thoughts and reactions as understanding of her family history unfolded in unexpected ways.
A recurring dream of searching for her grandmother and never quite finding her sparked the beginning of her research in 1988. Her book was published in 2009, twenty-one years later. She spent most of those years doing research, both academic and on-site, fitting it piece-meal into a busy academic career. The research paid off in a literary masterpiece rich with layers and facets.
Which leads to versatility of both voice and content. When she wrote of her early childhood, she wrote with the voice of a young child. That voice matured as the story progressed. When she wrote in the voices of her grandmothers, their personalities were distinctly evident through the choice of words as well as the dialect she used to good effect as she wrote. I had the sense of sitting on the front stoop listening to these women muse about the past. The fictionalized parts were every bit as vivid and compelling as accounts of her own experience. She has done an amazing job of blending fact and fiction, always making it clear where the boundaries lie without letting those boundaries intrude.
In addition to the story content, Linda includes extensive backstory, explaining how she did her research, lending additional credibility and authenticity to inherently powerful stories. The research also served as the framework for weaving in rich detail about the history of relations between white settlers and the native population of Appalachian Tennessee and Kentucky, and the inbred culture of "The Land Between the Rivers" where her forebears settled after being driven out of the family homeland up the Cumberland River farther east in Tennessee.
As the book recounts stories of brutal abuse, it gives testimony to the generation-spanning damage this behavior causes as well as the strength of the human spirit and its ability to endure and transcend. It's also a testimony to the shackle-shattering power of shedding light on the past to replace fear and shame with healing, hope and reconciliation for new generations.
The story is worth a read for its own sake. Family historians and memoirists will derive added value from the fine example of craft.
Linda Tate is a faculty member in the University of Denver's Writing Program. She is the author of A Southern Weave of Women: Fiction of the Contemporary South and the editor of Conversations with Lee Smith. She taught at Shepherd University in West Virginia for fifteen years and now lives in Boulder, Colorado. Read more on the publisher's website.
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