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American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White, and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama (P.S.) Paperback – April 9, 2013
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“Extraordinary. . . . A fascinating account of the First Lady’s family. . . . No political [book] has ever looked like this one.” (New York Times Book Review)
“Riveting. . . . A microcosm of this country’s story. . . . The real-life saga of struggle, survival, triumph and tragedy serves as an uplifting companion to Alex Haley’s Roots.” (USA Today)
“Richly detailed. . . . A lushly layered portrait of the nation itself. . . .Swarns weaves a narrative in which massive social changes (slavery, Reconstruction, the Great Migration) and the microscopic details of DNA play equally important roles.” (Boston Globe)
“Swarns has unearthed and disseminated crucial American history here. . . . A remarkable, only-in-America story that Swarns tells with care and thoughtfulness. . . . Her passion for the story is clear and striking. . . . This book is a worthy and significant endeavor.” (Washington Post)
“Swarns paints a vivid, intriguing portrait of people whose struggles, losses, and triumphs speak volumes about the pull of family and the power of American endurance.” (Los Angeles Times)
“A meticulously researched and eloquently written real-life detective story.” (Essence)
“A completely fascinating look at the complex ancestry of one family, African Americans, and all Americans.” (Booklist (starred review))
“Tremendously moving. . . . Swarns provides numerous tales of heartbreak and achievement, many of which essentially make up the American story.” (Kirkus Reviews)
“An engrossing book. . . . Swarns outlines the fascinating journeys taken by various ancestors of First Lady Michelle Obama—the people who, across the generations, helped make her who she is today.” (Library Journal)
“[A] meticulous, detailed investigation into Mrs. Obama’s family tree. . . . American Tapestry holds rewards.” (Denver Post)
From the Back Cover
Michelle Obama's family saga is a remarkable, quintessentially American story—a journey from slavery to the White House in five generations. In this prodigiously researched epic, New York Times correspondent Rachel L. Swarns traces that complex and fascinating tale—from the men who fought in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, to the mothers and fathers who endured the horrors of slavery and the indignities of segregation to build a better future for their children—uncovering details about Mrs. Obama's black, white, and multiracial forebears that even the First Lady herself did not know.
Though an intimate family history, American Tapestry is also the collective chronicle of our changing nation, a beautifully rendered and singularly inspiring story with resonance for us all.
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These are the hard realities and they point up the author's passionate commitment to and perseverance in uncovering Ms. Obama's heritage and the frustrating task of taking on the 'peculiar institution' of slavery. Without reservation, she is to be highly commended.
Thanks to an extraordinary high school American history teacher, I have long read widely all kinds of U.S. history, ever driven by attempts at understanding the 'whys' of how things happened. So it gives me no pleasure to comment on the flawed and disappointing fruits of this author's efforts. She was right on to see that Melvinia's experiences are unquestionably at the very heart of the family pedigree.
It is very rare that I experience such deep frustration with attempts to uncover our national history. Here are some of the reasons this book disappoints:
1) The book would benefit from a preface declaring her specific intentions of what she wanted to accomplish; her plan for walking readers through a complex topic, who she consulted (particularly knowledgeable, skilled historians), and how she went about this work. It would add much weight to her work. Much of the blame falls on her editor for this omission.
2) Jumping around in time and place is vastly confusing. This includes clearly identifying people and relationships, context, times and places. Again, where is the organizing framework?
3) The simple addition of 'paternal' great-grandfathers and 'maternal' great-great grandmothers, etc, would give readers some anchor to hold onto.
4) Careful editing would avoid errors in the basics of good writing. A singular example (which may seem picky)is the incorrect use of 'forebears.' The accurate word is 'fore-bearers.' The point is what journalists should know: errors in the fundamentals of writing (spelling, grammar, sentence structure, etc.)can lead readers to question the strength and soundness of the author's main ideas. This is no small thing.
5) Repeated speculations about slavery, especially Melvinia's experience with her owner Henry Shields and her son Dolphus's (a free black man) relationship with his white half-brother 'Mack' Shields, miss the point. Examples: 'was Melvinia coerced and raped? Cherished? Treated as a loved family member?' Consider Annette Gordon-Reed's magisterial 'The Hemingses of Monticello,' a rich comprehensive analysis: the stark reality is that NO enslaved woman could consent to sexual exploitation; the master-slave power dynamics virtually prohibited any fantasy of consent. Affection? So what? If it didn't translate to relational equality, what meaningful difference does 'affection' make??? Dulphus Shields was acutely aware of these power dynamics as well.
I so wanted this to be a powerful and significant work, and in so many ways it is. I so wanted to get to the 'whys.' Perhaps it just isn't doable.
Make no mistake: this is an immensely significant work. Read and immerse in the realities of Michelle Obama's family heritage. The First Lady embraces and honors her family history, setting a deeply admirable example that hopefully will ease those descendants of slave owners and our nation's ongoing healing about our history.
I wanted to like this book because the lived reality of race in America is indeed fascinating. In looking at the family story and tree of Mrs. Obama there was an opportunity to look at how the black middle class formed. In relating how slaves reacted to freedom by looking for lost(sold) relatives and marrying their common law spouses the reader is given an insight into the strength of family in these peoples lives. Were they so different than us? Maybe just more courageous.
When the author starts filling in the blank spaces of these peoples lives she often writes things like "she must have felt this... or this." It felt a bit made up.
Swarns also takes the best view that one can take of the bare bones evidence. There are numerous instances of men deserting families and serial divorcées. She tends to give them a pass. Maybe the preacher who divorced three times might be a hypocrite rather than a pillar of the community? Maybe families moving every 6 months are evading creditors or just plain unhappy and unstable? To say they just had a wander lust is taking an easy option when one has taken the path of trying to explain people who are long dead and who left little evidence behind them.
The writing style, while reasonable if it was your Aunt Mabel's attempt at a family history, is simple not good enough for a published book. Swarns is a professional writer so her flabby, folksy prose style is not appropriate. The way the notes where set out is something I have never seen in a book that relies heavily for evidence for its story. Each note is set out in italics of the original statement in the text and then cites the evidence/quote to back up the texts assertions. Why do this? Are footnote this annoying? Leave it to the reader to look at the end of the book if they want to look up the evidence. Some people will and some won't but you are not given a choice.
In all a quite amateurish effort.