The Hairstons traces the complex lineage and fascinating legacy of one of America's largest families. Henry Wiencek explores the lives of black and white members of the Hairston clan, as they have accepted each other as one family, easing the historical divide between the races, and reveals how Southern families have been affected by slavery's legacy and by the burden it continues to carry. Visiting family reunions, interviewing family members, and exploring old plantations, Wiencek combs the far-reaching branches of the Hairston family tree to gather anecdotes from members about their ancestors and piece together a family history that involves the experiences of both plantation owners and their slaves. He expertly weaves the Hairstons' stories from all sides of historical events like slave emancipation, Reconstruction, school segregation, and lynching. For example, from a black Hairston, Wiencek learns of a slave who burned rail fences to cook a hog for his starving comrades; white Hairstons record the incident as an act of slave indolence, a way to hinder the next day's work.
As Wiencek tells the stories of individual Hairstons, he uncovers the layers of a shared history at times painful, shameful, extraordinary, and joyful. Beautifully describing the land of the South and faithfully recounting what he has been told, Wiencek testifies that he "heard history not as a historian would write it but as a novelist would imagine it." The dynamic stories in The Hairstons are not solely one family's legacy but a record that reflects America's complicated process of healing and understanding the mark of slavery. --Amy Wan
From Publishers Weekly
Covering similar ground as Edward Ball's National Book Award-winning Slaves in the Family, Wiencek steps gracefully through the intricate web that links two family trees, one white and one black. Because it's not his own family history he explores, Wiencek doesn't labor under the burden of personal moral accountability that made Ball's book so powerful. He intends his book as a national "parable of redemption"?and he succeeds, admirably, in presenting the Hairstons as a metaphor for the nation while also presenting the specificity of their history, which he learned by traveling through three Southern states in search of interviews and courthouse records. He attempts a balance between the two stories over centuries of ignored heritage and denied kin. At one point, the founding Hairston family owned several plantations and hundreds of slave families over three states. Master Peter Hairston and his former slave Thomas Harston fought on opposite sides in the Civil War, and "the success of one brought the other low." As Wiencek follows the Hairstons from Reconstruction through the civil rights era, he paints a picture of the declining fortunes of the descendants of the slave master and the rise and wisdom of the descendants of the slaves. And yet the name itself is treasured among both family branches, and some of the white descendants can't resist the desire to make contact with the other branch. Commonalities emerge among black and white Hairstons; earnest, if partial, gestures of reconciliation are made. Throughout, Wiencek writes without sentimentality but with great feeling. "I heard history," he writes, "not as a historian would write it but as a novelist would imagine it.... I felt all the moral confusion of a spy." Maps, photographs and extended family trees not seen by PW.
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