Book Review: Trace

Trace is a beautifully written, award-winning account of Lauret Savoy’s digging into the layers and crevices of history, time, and place in a quest to identify strands of her identity. I am grateful to my friend and colleague Running Grass of Three Circles Center for drawing my attention to Savoy’s work. In Trace, Savoy details her “longing to know of origins. Of who we were to each other. Of who we were to these . . . lands” (p. 169).

My work in Critical Family History challenges genealogists to situate their family pasts within contexts shaped by culture, race, and class; Savoy extends that contextualization to the land. Savoy, a professor of environmental studies and geology who describes herself as of mixed heritage, chronicles her efforts to trace her origins. “Yes, I am palimpsest too, a place made over but trying to trace back” (p. 86).

As she digs into the memories and records she is able to find, she also probes the landscape, which holds memories of those who traversed and lived in its spaces. Savoy asks to what extent we take our origin from blood, from memories; and how we make sense of memories that have been silenced. Even silenced memories leave traces if we can manage to figure out how to see, hear, touch, or sense them. “Silence can be a sanctuary or frame for stories told. Silence also obscures origins. . . .Neither school lessons nor images surging around me could offer salve or substitute” (p. 29).

Savoy “decided to try to trace family, and myself, from storied places and recorded history. But where to start?” (p. 21) She began with the Arkansas River, from its origins, then through Colorado and Oklahoma. She traced who was there, and how white people, Indian nations, African Americans interacted with and treated each other – often very cruelly. For Savoy, land offers memory as well as solace: “The American land preceded hate” (p. 29).

In exquisite detail Savoy probes histories of places where various of her ancestors had lived. On Madeline Island in Lake Superior, she sought traces of the Indigenous people who were there long before white people. She explores Indigenous names for places (toponyms), pointing out the irony of whites violently expelling and killing them while simultaneously adopting misheard Indigenous place names. For example, “Mutating steps could result in an English version of a French interpretation of an Indigenous word that ended up as Wisconsin” (p. 76). Throughout the book, she uncovers origins of place names, traces of people who had gone before.

In South Carolina, Savoy visited the Charles and Mary Moore’s Walnut Grove Plantation. The tour, and even the descriptor of the plantation as “self-sufficient,” rendered invisible the enslaved Africans (including Savoy’s mother’s people) — those who actually did the work of the plantation. In this and many other stories, Savoy juxtaposes “The remembered and told past” (p. 92) against the actual historical record. To find that record – to make visible the traces of her own ancestry – she used genealogical tools such as census records, wills, and maps, even though the records themselves “privilege property owners” (p. 98) in whose details get recorded.

In San Pedro Valley, Arizona, Savoy critiqued the artificiality of the border dividing “us” from “them” on a landscape that has no natural border, observing that “Solid divides lay on maps and in minds” (p. 131) but not in nature. A theme in her analysis throughout is how white greed for the land’s minerals led to massive displacement of Indigenous peoples. This was the case in the San Pedro Valley, where white peoples’ desire for minerals prompted the U.S. to drive out the Indigenous peoples who had lived there for centuries. Savoy’s African American mother had been sent to Fort Huachaca in the San Pedro Valley with the army. Savoy examines racism in the army, manifest in myriad ways, including policies of sending segregated Black troops to out-of-the way places such as this corner of Arizona.

In Washington DC, Savoy traces her father’s African American ancestors. Using primary historical and genealogical records, she probes the relationship between slavery and location in the construction of the nation’s capitol. While slavery was woven into its fabric, “Two centuries would pass before Congress publicly acknowledged these builders of the capital city” (p. 169).

Through digging, Savoy also came to see more clearly why she didn’t know her stories from the past, who buried them and why. “A dear friend once asked me if history is more about forgetting and deletion than about remembering and completion. The past I’ve emerged from is also broken and pitted by gaps left by silences stretched across generations” (p. 185).

Because the past is riven with so much main, most of us stay “barricaded safely in the present” (p. 110). But by staying barricaded, by turning away from the past in order to avoid its violence and hatred (and the guilt many of us feel for our ancestors’ roles in causing violence), we leave ourselves in the position of inheriting and recreating a past we deny.

For me, Trace connects my work in Critical Family History with the land. Trace depicted the land not simply as a backdrop for human activity, but rather a living part of the activity. For anyone wondering how the natural landscape is part of our story, I recommend reading Lauret Savoy’s Trace.

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