Falling Off the Family Tree

Lisa Alther

Arcade: 264 pp., $25

“EVERYTHING I’ve ever written has been an attempt to work out who I am,” writes Lisa Alther, author of the novel “Kinflicks” and a Tennessee native. In this memoir, she tracks her Melungeon ancestors, olive-skinned people “said to be descended from Indians who mated with early Spanish explorers, or from the survivors of Sir Walter Raleigh’s Lost Colony on Roanoke Island, or from Portuguese sailors shipwrecked on the Carolina coast, or from African slaves who escaped into the mountains.” A mean-spirited baby-sitter told Alther that the Melungeons lived in caves, had six fingers on each hand and stole children; she grew up afraid of them. “Kinfolks” charts her “six-decade evolution from bemused Appalachian misfit to equally bemused citizen of the world.” After college (Wellesley), she marries and moves to Vermont, making repeated trips to Sneedville, Tenn., Melungeon’s “Ground Zero.” “Melungeon,” she explains, derives from the French melange. She attends conferences, joins Internet groups, orders DNA testing kits. The results reveal that Alther, now a mother herself, is indeed an “Ur-American,” true product of the original melting pot.


The Mayflower Papers

Selected Writings of Colonial New England

Edited by Nathaniel Philbrick and Thomas Philbrick

Penguin Classics: 312 pp., $15 paper

THIS well-chosen collection is full of vivid detail and fresh insight into the lives of the 17th century Puritan separatists. Selections from William Bradford’s “Of Plymouth Plantation” explain why they left home and describe the voyage and settlement, particularly the relationships among the settlers and between them and the Wampanoag Indians. Excerpts from Edward Winslow’s “Good News From New England” reveal the Pilgrim spirit “at its brutal and self-righteous worst.” Mary Rowlandson’s “The Sovereignty and Goodness of God” tells of her captivity by Indians. Rowlandson, wife of a prominent minister, was an accomplished knitter. “Entertaining Passages Relating to Philip’s War,” by Benjamin and Thomas Church, depicts the bloody war that, along with disease, starvation and slavery, destroyed up to 80% of the native New Englanders. English casualties (8%) were “double the percentage of male casualties in the American Civil War.” One has the satisfying feeling, reading these pieces, of seeing the truths behind our Thanksgiving myth.


Without a Map

A Memoir

Meredith Hall

Beacon Press: 220 pp., $24.95

THIS is a horrifying story of misplaced morality. Meredith Hall, raised in New Hampshire, became pregnant in 1965 after one night with a man she barely knew. She was 16, a junior in high school; he was 21, a Boston College senior. When her condition was revealed, she was expelled. Her mother sent her off to her father, who’d left home to live with another woman. Hall’s friends shunned her; she could no longer go to church. Her father forbade her to leave the house or eat with him when there were guests. Five days after her son was born, he was given up for adoption. This is a modern-day “Scarlet Letter,” probably still a common scenario. Hall’s shunning is tribal and infuriating, her efforts to accept the loss of her child traumatic even for the reader: “I abandoned my baby,” she writes. “I never said a word. Sometimes my own failure of courage feels like the most hideous kind of cowardice, a flaw in me that confirms my unworthiness for love.” The reader’s sheer relief when Hall creates a fulfilling life for herself is like the feeling of waking from a terrifying dream.