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Into the Briar Patch: A Family Memoir.   AuthorHouse, 2011.

 

This book is the story of the author’s quest to understand her family history. She tries to untangle the briars of the past by tracing lines of cause and effect back to the early 1800s.

As slaveholders, her South Carolina ancestors lived inside a psychological briar patch of American history. Through family documents and cultural studies, the author explores the likely results of slaveholding upon the family character as it passes from parents to children. History participates in shaping the moral psychology of a Southern family through five generations.

Deep within the briar patch lies the will to survive. Belief in one’s own goodness is necessary to survival. The author considers evidence of her family’s self-professed virtues—physical bravery, nurturing, and purity—and locates their roots partly in slaveholding. Her family may have needed to intensify certain qualities as if they were extreme virtues, in order to reassure themselves of their own goodness while they were participating in slavery and Jim Crow.

These unspoken depths of the briar patch may also have produced stories about blacks and whites that turn and twist so as to reassure whites that they were themselves good. Into the Briar Patch interrogates the roots of racism and the interplay of culture and soul. The psychological entanglements of slavery seem to have brought about both good and bad in family history, both fruit and thorns. The family tree becomes the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Each branch bends differently, and each family story sounds its own wistful, amusing, tragic, zealous, or ironic tone.

Kirkus Discoveries praises the book as “an expansive, accomplished memoir” with “succinct, rich language that rings in one’s ear like a wind chime gently stirred by a slow breeze.”

Madelon Sprengnether, memoirist and Regents Professor of English at the University of Minnesota, writes that Into the Briar Patch is “a profound meditation on the mixture of good and evil” and praises the author’s “compelling . . . labor to achieve not only clear-eyed understanding of the past, but also compassion for all of the (living and dead) players involved.”