Well, I laughed out loud in many places (behavior previously reserved only for Huckleberry Finn). I searched for myself in the narrative (longing to know I had made an impression at one of the many Melungeon events we both attended). I felt very much at home with the people she describes (who, as I had suspected all along, were real people merely disguised as fictional characters in her three Appalachian novels).
Who can help being drawn in? Struggling with my own identity crisis as I have tried to stay in step with the middle American values that defined my upbringing, I identify strongly with Alther's search for roots. She and I were born only a year apart. Few authors have nailed the 50s/60s high school scene as she has; she knows the music, the dress code, and the social drill. So, I trust her absolutely to narrate her experiences in mid-life and am immediately on board when she declares in the Introduction, "Everything I've ever written has been an attempt to work out who I am, not only culturally but also sexually, politically, and spiritually."
Alther's wry assessment of her discoveries is amusing but also telling. Her understanding of paralyzing fears rivals her telling of stunning insights.
She writes "Before turning out my light that night, I look under the bed
and in the closet for lurking Melungeons. I'm often bad, and apparently
the Melungeons, like Santa, have their ways of finding out .... My father
has mentioned a Cherokee ancestress .... I went away because I felt I
didn't fit in. I discovered that I don't fit in anywhere, and neither do most
people. It's called (drum roll, please) the Human Condition.... I used to
think that a real friend was someone who, had I been Jewish in Germany,
would have hidden me from the Gestapo. Now that I'm a senior citizen, I
know that a real friend is someone who will drive you home from your
In this book Alther tells her family's Melungeon story and in the process raises some questions that I raised with her over lunch at the Ridgewood Barbecue one autumn day in 1999 after I read Kinflicks. She speculates that her Virginia grandparents, a physician and a schoolteacher descended from an acknowledged Cherokee Abby Easterd, may have left Virginia because they were aware of Walter Plecker's "bureaucratic noose tightening around the necks of ethnically mixed people." She acknowledges that DNA analysis could tell part of the story.
This book is more than a personal quest. It is a carefully researched investigation of Melungeon history. It reports Alther's findings and also artfully narrates the saga of the finding.
Kinfolks reads like fiction, but its grounded reality comforts me. Alther's craftsmanship is evident not only in the humor, but in several strategies she uses throughout to frame the anecdotes.
One such strategy is the inclusion of Diane, her hairdresser in Kingsport. Diane becomes a person we know who exemplifies the good things about the southern mountains and points up some of the contrasts between Tennessee and Alther's other "home," Vermont. We expect Diane to try to convince Alther to dye her hair and Alther to refuse.
Another winsome strategy is the inclusion of Tennessee church-sign witticisms and, in contrast, Vermonters' bumper sticker slogans.
Levity notwithstanding, Alther adroitly includes all the hot topics in Melungeon studies - the origin theories, the Unions, the squabbles, and DNA testing, the crown jewel. She is serious about her quest to discover her family story. She ends her book revealing the results of her own DNA test and declares "The Melungeons have proven that the children of Cain and Abel have the capacity to become kissing cousins.
All that transformation requires is ostracism by our neighbors and the threat of imminent extinction." So, what's not to like about this book? Nothing. It will both inform and entertain you. I recommend it whole-heartedly.
Editor's Note: Kinfolks Falling off the Family Tree: The Search for MyMelungeon Ancestors is Lisa Alther's first work of non-fiction, the result of adecade-long quest to track down the mystery of her Melungeon ancestors. Alther,a Kingsport native with family roots in Dickenson County, Virginia, read history,visited sites around the world, and interviewed many people related to her quest.The parallel stories and friendship of Ina Danko (principal at Bristol Virginia HighSchool) and Nellie McNeil (teacher and newspaper columnist from Kingsport) helpto broaden Alther's own family story to become a regional one as well.
About Katie Vande Brake: She is Professor of English and TechnicalCommunication at King College in Bristol, Tennessee. She wrote How They Shine:Melungeon Characters in the Fiction of Appalachia.
Famous Local Author coming to Abingdon
In conjunction with the release of her latest book, Lisa Alther will discuss her work during "Sunday with Friends" on April 22 at 3 p.m. at the Washington County Public Library in Abingdon. 276-676-6383.
Alther grew up in Kingsport, has lived in London and Paris, and now divides her time between Vermont and New York City. She is best-known as the author of five novels - Kinflicks, Original Sins, Other Women, Bedrock, and FiveMinutes in Heaven. Each has appeared on bestseller lists worldwide, having been translated into numerous languages. The first three novels were featured selections of the Book-of-the-Month Club, and the five novels combined have sold over six million copies.
Alther has done reading tours around the globe, and her novels are studied in university courses in English literature, Southern literature, Appalachian literature, women's studies, gay and lesbian studies, sociology, and psychology.