Thursday, May 6, 2010

Book Review: Annie's Ghosts by Steve Luxenberg

Steve Luxenberg’s mother was an only child. She worked that fact into many conversations, even with people she had barely met. Her family didn’t think it strange that she did so; it was just a part of who she was.

When Steve finds out his mother had a sister, his shock as a son, as well as his training as a reporter, compels him to research the mystery. He is determined not only to figure out the Who, What, When, Where and How – but also the Why. When he begins the research sixty years have passed since his aunt was institutionalized. She is deceased, and so are both of his parents. And he realizes he is racing against time to find the right people to ask the right questions.

Along the way he uncovers more family secrets. They propel his research to Detroit, Michigan, and through the history and bureaucracy of Michigan’s institutions for individuals with mental retardation and mental illness. They lead him from Radziwillow, Russia, where a cousin escaped the Holocaust, to the Philippines, where his father served during World War II, to Ellis Island.  They take him through the letters his parents wrote to each other, and through his own childhood memories.  The reader follows, often horrified, saddened, or intrigued by what is revealed. 
Who knew? Who didn’t? Both questions needed to be answered for a complete portrait. The artist’s challenge was mine as well: To get the composition right. I had to master the negative space as well as the positive; to paint what was absent as well as what was present. (page 65)
This is Luxenberg’s first book, but that is misleading.  He is not unskilled with the written word, as he has been a senior editor at the Washington Post for over two decades. The emotional conflict between the duties of a reporter and those of a son play out in the pages.

Much of the book will be familiar to a genealogist. We’re accustomed to uncovering these mysteries, though we may not be as skilled in some of the investigational techniques. I was impressed with what I learned from the book. (See below.)

I don't read many memoirs, but Luxenberg immediately was able to grab my attention, and hold it until the end.  The elements of mystery and genealogy research are undoubtedly the glue which kept me hooked, however I suspect regular readers of memoirs will find the emotional impact of the revelations satisfying.  My only frustrations during reading were the ones I shared with Luxenberg, over the bureaucratic red tape, and the fading human recollections.

Some readers may feel the descriptions aren't sufficient, and wish more of the documents referenced were presented in the book for us to look at. There is a fix for this, though. Luxenberg has created a website where he has uploaded many of these documents, as well as some additional ones not mentioned in the book. I recommend not visiting the website until after you’ve finished reading, as there are some potential spoilers. In both what is presented there, and perhaps more importantly to some readers, what is absent.

Finally, there are a few appendices worth mentioning.  First, he includes some extensive chapter notes. There is also a list of "Family Members and Recurring Figures."  This cast of characters will prove useful to many readers, and if you're a reader who tends to skip over the table of contents, you're not likely to see it until after you're finished.

A Few Research Tips I Learned

1) Don’t Lead the Witness

I didn’t really learn this from Luxenberg, it’s more like I was reminded. I come from a family of lawyers, so the phrase was familiar. But it is important to remember when interviewing people, whether they are on a witness stand, or sitting across from you at the dinner table. People’s memories are a funny thing, and if you ask them, “Do you remember X?” they may suddenly think they are able to.

2) New Resources

Luxenberg used a few resources that were new to me.

A) Morning Reports

Many US World War II personnel records were destroyed in a 1973 fire, but these weren’t.
MORNING REPORTS are created each morning, as the name implies. They are an "exception based" system, only containing information on those individuals who are not "Present and Accounted for". Among the reasons for being listed on a morning report are: Promotion or demotion; Being killed, wounded or missing in action; Being assigned to a unit, or leaving a unit; Going to a hospital for treatment, or to another activity for training [quote from National Archives page linked to above]
Morning Reports are available from 1912-1974 for the US Army, and 1947-1966 for the Air Force.

B) 1940-2000 census records – Age Search Service

It’s a well-repeated maxim that the US census is closed to the public until 72 years have passed. This maxim, while generally true, hides an important exception. You can ask the census bureau for a transcription of your own census details. And after you are deceased, so can (1) a blood relative in the immediate family (parent, child, brother, sister, grandparent), (2) the surviving wife or husband, (3) the administrator or executor of the estate, or (4) a beneficiary by will or insurance.

This can be expensive. It’s $65 for a “census transcript” which will list the person’s name, relationship to household head, age at the time of the census, state of birth, and citizenship if the person was foreign born. An additional $10 for a “Full Schedule” containing the complete one-line entry for a single person.  Offhand, I can't think of any personal mysteries that this will help me solve. However, despite the cost and the restrictions, this could prove useful to some.


1) The publisher provided me with a review copy. This is standard practice for professional reviewers, but since I am not one, I feel I should disclose this.

2) Since I do have an Amazon Associates account, and used it for the below "Buy From Amazon" links, anyone who follows those links and makes a purchase from Amazon will be helping me earn a small referral fee. This doesn't add to your cost in any way. And if you wish to purchase it from Barnes and Noble, Borders, or a local independent bookseller, the choice is yours.

The paperback is being
released May 11, 2010,
but can be pre-ordered.

1 comment:

Jasia said...

Boy, Molly over at Hyperion Books sure has been busy contacting genealogy bloggers. I've counted at least 4 of us who will be writing reviews of Annie's Ghosts for her ;-) I expect to have my review posted middle to end of next week.

I enjoyed your review. I'll be interested to read what the others write too.