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Book Review: 'Family'

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Current Status:
In Season
Ian Frazier
Nonfiction, Memoir

We gave it an A

Following his father’s death in 1987 from pneumonia and his mother’s, just over a year later, from liver cancer, Ian Frazier (Great Plains) began trying to fit his parents’ lives into some larger context — a continuum of history and bloodline. But what started as a way to banish grief turned eventually into a literary meditation on the meaning of his own family’s 300-plus years in America.

Drawing on letters, documents, genealogies, interviews, and library research, Family (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $23) plunges back into the 17th century, when Frazier’s ancestors first came from England, Scotland, and Germany to the fantastically forested North American continent, then works its way forward. One distant relative, Frazier learns, was a surgeon’s mate; another was a weaver’s apprentice; others were slave-ship captains. But the identities of most colonial-period ancestors have been nibbled away by time, stripped of everything but the bracketed dates of their existence.

With prose as evocative as photos from the Bettmann Archive, Frazier reconstructs arduous migrations from the Atlantic seaboard into what was called ”the Black Forest of the West.” History, from the American Revolution to the Civil War, industrialization, Prohibition, and the Great Depression, keeps reshaping Frazier’s ever-branching family, bringing it into sharper focus.

As their oldest son — called Sandy, never Ian — sorts reverently through their possessions, ”Mom and Dad” become ”David and Peggy,” whose identities encompass more than just parenthood. Reserved and melancholy, David Frazier earned a doctorate in chemistry, served in World War II, then went to work, in 1946, for Standard Oil of Ohio — ”the only [job] he would have for the rest of his life.” He dated and fell in love with Peggy Hursh when they were both acting in an amateur production of I Remember Mama. They married, dreaming of a golden future, and like almost everyone else were disappointed when that future failed to materialize: ”They had done everything life had expected of them, and life had betrayed them.” Again and again.

But as Frazier finally realizes when all of their photographs, love letters, and memorabilia have been sorted, labeled, and put away, that’s what life always does. It betrayed his mother and father by striking down their youngest son with leukemia just as it had betrayed distant relatives killed by fevers in the wilderness or driven half-mad in the smoky chaos of the battlefield. The trick, and the consolation, is knowing that in between the certain betrayals are those times when it all goes right.

Though colored by loss, this is a rich and ennobling book, a transcendent affirmation of individual and communal purpose. In Family, as in all families, life is lived. A