59 of 59 people found the following review helpful
I read this book during a vacation in Hawaii; I found it so compelling I couldn't put it down.
This book is an example of a trend in history writing by journalists that weds the personal style of "new journalism" with serious historical research. The book is both a "personal" account of the Ball family ownership of slaves and a well-researched and thoughtful history of slavery in the United States.
Some readers have commented that the book was difficult to read; I thought the writing was elegant and easy to follow - much easier to digest than academic writing. Some readers have felt the book was superficial or self-indulgent on the part of the writer. I didn't find it to be either - the winding of the story made sense and like a good plot led naturally from one part to the next. The research underneath the story was thorough, and the analysis was thoughtful.
52 of 55 people found the following review helpful
National Book Award-winner, Slaves in the Family, is one of the best nonfiction books I have read in the past ten years. Edward Ball comes from a very prominent family of plantation owners in the Charleston Low Country. The patriarch, Elias Ball, immigrates to the colonies in the late 1600's. Being very prolific when it came to progeny, he soon had children and grandchildren owning over two dozen plantations along the Ashley and Cooper Rivers. After the Civil War, the Ball plantations were sold or lost, one by one. Yet today, the Balls are still very prominent in Charleston Society. Their family tree is well documented, and instead of being plantation owners, they now count lawyers, judges, doctors and priests among their ranks.
In Edward Ball's first effort, he sets out to find the descendants of the thousands of Ball family slaves. This was no easy task. Many slaves had no last names. Others moved to distant states. Some descendants had no wish to speak with him. Ball also encountered reticence from his own family. The extended family did not like to talk about slavery. On the few occasions when the subject was raised, they all espoused the party line: 1. Balls never mistreated their slaves 2. Balls never separated slave families and 3. Ball masters never slept with female slaves.
Using surviving Ball journals, diaries, ledgers and inventories, Edward was able to contact a good many slave descendants. I found the most moving parts of the book are when Edward's research validates the oral history of many slave ancestors, and in some cases, helped them to fill in the missing pieces of their genealogical puzzle. Edward's research also helps him to discover more about his own ancestors. Contrary to Ball oral history, not all Ball plantation owners treated their slaves admirably. Also, slave families were sometimes separated-although mostly due to economic necessity (i.e. when slaves were sold to settle an estate). But what really shocked the author was when he discovered that he had ancestors of color! But save that topic for another book.
The only part of Slaves in the Family that bothered me was Edward Ball's insistence on being an apologist for slavery. Although slavery was a horrible institution, Ball was in no way responsible for what his ancestors did hundreds of years ago. Still, this is just a minor distraction in an otherwise fabulous book. In addition to reading Slaves in the Family, I also listened to it on tape and enjoyed it just as much the second time around. Edward Ball truly gives us a remarkable effort in his first at bat.
43 of 45 people found the following review helpful
on June 22, 2000
'Slaves In The Family' is amazing. The research Edward Ball was able to do for this book was tantemount to a sisyphean feat. By tracing the heritage of several slave decendants back to the mid 1600s, he fullfilled something so profound for those families, almost no words can describe it. Most African Americans in this country are resigned to the fact that we'll never know who our great, great, grandparents were, where in Africa our ancestors once lived, or who we are beyond stolen people. To be able to say 'I've traced my heritage as far back to a relative named Binah, which is a common name in Sierra Leone, so my people are probably from there' is one of the most spiritual, life-altering pieces of information an African American (who is searching) can be given. In my personal experience, there has always been lack of understanding of myself. I can read and study and dance and commune, and on one level that is all of the knowing I need. But is that because that satisfies my soul, or because that's all the knowing I'm likely to get in this lifetime? Whatever the case, all my life there's been this yearning to know who my people are, and it's a yearning I've heard echoed in my sisters and brothers all over the country. Edward Ball is also a brilliant story teller. There are times when I'm reading, that I have to remind myself that it's non-fiction. Not only because it's so well written, but because I'm so far removed from the brutal, chattle existence my acestors survived, it is often times impossible to reconcile on the D train to Brooklyn that this country (and on a larger scale - the world) has a continually unpleasant history of treating fellow human beings deplorably, and in some instances, ungodly. Ball's able to relay American history, not black history (because there is no such thing in this country - we're all intertwined), in such an unbiased, sometimes humorous, sometimes somber way, that you really can't believe he's a descendant of one of the largest, earliest, and longest held plantation owners in South Carolina. The book dedicates equal time to his European relatives, and is unique in that no one is demonized, nor depicted as saintly. It is what it is.
I highly recommend it. Just came out in paperback. And there are glossy pictures.
20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on February 3, 1998
This book is a moving and emotionallly powerful exploration and confrontation by one South Carolina-born writer with the moral consequences of the actions of his slave-owning and -selling ancestors. "Slaves in the Family" recounts Edward Ball's painstaking research into the history of his family, the first of whom settled near Charlestion at the end of the 17th century. He learns that his ancestors not only owned slaves,but that 2 family branches were large-scale slave traders, importing human beings directly from West Africa, He searches out descendants of slaves who lived on Ball family plantations, preparing careful geneologies and scrupulously identifying and acknowledging black families as descended from his own white ancestors as well as slave women on the plantations. This is the source of the title; he and these black people are members of the same family.
Ball goes further than any other work I have seen in following the historic trail all the way to Sierra Leone, searching not only for descendants of some freed Ball family slaves who settled there, but for African families whose ancestors were sellers of other Africans. Ball's reports of his meetings with these African families are some of the most moving passages in the book. He is not the only person who must struggle to acknowledge evil done by family members in the past. I highly recommend reading this book,especiallly for white folks,as a major contribution to the attempt to reconcile and heal the scars of Americans' shared racial tragedy.
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on March 7, 2000
I enjoyed this book a great deal. It helped make me more aware of how intertwined the African-American and White-American communities really are. It also helped be better understand the African-American experience. For me, this book is another step in that process.
I have to say, though, that this is a fairly hard book to read. It is written, in my opinion, like a documentary, not a story. So there are a lot of details that you have to wade through. Reading this book felt like walking through molasses. Every step was an effort.
Please don't misunderstand me. That style was probably necessary. However, this is not a book you're going to get through on a flight somewhere.
Unlike many books today, you're going to have to work some to get the meaning out of this terrific book. The end result is well worth the work.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on January 18, 2001
I could not put this book down! Many found Ball's journalistic style cumbersome, but for me, it was of great benefit. I don't like the way most non-fiction writers set out to prove a point and do so at all costs (ie, not presenting the fullest picture possible). This is a book that didn't give into that. He combined amazing fact-finding with his own soul-searching, but in such a non-obnoxious way. Also, the book flows very well, contrary to what some people have said. A story involving generations and generations of many different families is, naturally, going to be complicated, but the maps, geneological trees, and pictures (in the paperback version only, I think), all helped a great deal. Overall, this book is a fascinating read. It has helped me to understand so much more about the effect that slavery has had upon this country. Slavery is a topic that, for all the bandying about of the term "race relations" by politicians and such, we really have managed to sweep under the rug entirely. I agree with another commentator that this book should be required reading in American History classes -- high school and college.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on February 15, 2002
This is one of the most interesting and challenging books I have read in a very long time. Kudos to Mr. Ball for undertaking and executing such an endeavor, and for doing it so well.
Edward Ball is a decendant of one of the largest plantation and slave owing families in South Carolina. The book details the arrival of the very first Balls from England and Ireland to the New World and ends with their modern day progeny. In addition to these people's lives he tries to trace the linage of the people they owned as slaves to their their modern day decendants meeting cousins and other family relations along the way. Tracing the slaves' relatives is more difficult since theirs is more of an oral than a written history, but with the meager details he had to go on, Mr.Ball has done a wonderful job.
More than just filling out a family tree (of which there are several highly detailed ones in the back of the book) this book gives insights into the slave trade, daily plantation life and life after Reconstruction. The amount of research that had to have gone into this work is awesome. There are hundreds of dates, names and places which other reviewers have mentioned as being tedious or hard to follow. Considering the sheer numbers of people and the great expanse of time he dealt with, I do not think it could have been done any better.
This book is a wealth of information; anyone who picks it up could benefit from the information found in its pages. While a bit lengthy, Slaves in the Family would make great companion reading for an American History class. I look forward to reading Mr. Ball's newest work and hope that at some point in the future he traces back his mother's family history as they too were plantation owners.
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on March 30, 2000
The common practice of taking slave concubines is brilliantly portrayed and talked about in this book by Mr. Ball. A little slow going with all the names that he throws out, it was riveting when he describes the encounters with re-discovered black cousins. His expectations, their reservations about him pursuing this topic made it terribly difficult for me to put the book down at times. This will teach you about both the black and white races; where we were, and where we're going. A must read.
16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on February 6, 2000
I greatly enjoyed this book. Like other reviewers, I admire Mr. Ball's effort to come to terms with the painful past of his own family and of the United States.
As a white Canadian, though, perhaps I am missing out on some of the nuances of the debate about this book. Didn't it seem to some readers that Mr. Ball finds it difficult to view African Americans as equals? (e.g. surprised that the snow was shovelled in when visiting a black interview subject?) Didn't it seem that he misread one of the former slaves' seeming devotion to his former master's family? Isn't it possible that a former slave might lie or put on a show of subservience when approaching former masters? Espeically when (as Ball makes clear) the former slave is hitting up the former master for a charitable contribution to the education of black children? Was it necessary to compare the skin colour of almost every African American in the book to wood tones (cheery coloured, mahogoney coloured)? Don't whites have skin tone and colour? Why isn't it ever mentioned?
One of the big points I got out of reading this book is that many of us here in the Americas are of mixed racial heritage, whether we are willing to look at it or not. Perhaps race is not really so "black" and "white" when, in fact, many of us are of mixed race heritage.
I would be most interested to hear others' views on the points I have raised and, once again, I think Mr. Ball deserves congratulations for writing a book that has obviously got a lot of people thinking (including me).
16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on March 28, 2000
Edward Ball's ancestors were the owners of South Carolina rice plantations from about 1700 until 1950. They also owned slaves. This book shows how the Ball family and the slave families lives became so intertwined that the connections last even today. Though it is a chronicle of one family, it is also a chronicle of slavery from the 1700's until slavery was abolished after the Civil War. But it doesn't stop there. Mr. Ball is able to follow some of the former slave families into the present to see how they've fared.
Did I like this book? Yes. I happen to like history and I especially like to see how history affects us today. However, I think the book needed more of a chronological presentation. There was too much jumping back and forth, too many names to keep track of, so eventually toward the end of the book I felt overwhelmed. There are many interesting stories in this book that make it worth slogging through, but it is a slog.