Book Review: Annie’s Ghosts by Steve Luxenberg (4/5)

16 Jan

This will be the first of many posts I add about Annie’s Ghosts. This book was chosen for the Michigan Reads program this year so two of my book clubs are reading it and then I’m going to hear the author speak in May. Maybe I can convince you to read it!

This is my Michigan book for the Where Are You Reading? Challenge.

Cover Image via Goodreads.com

Cover Image via Goodreads.com

Annie’s Ghosts by Steve Luxenberg

During his mother’s final years, Steve heard from a doctor’s assistant that his mother had said she had a sister. Steve and his siblings were confused because their mother had always made a point to say she was an only child. The family pushed the comment to the back of their minds until after their mother’s death. Then, a letter asking for the maintenance payment on his grandparents graves came and to his surprise there were three graves; his grandparents and his aunt, Annie.

No one in the family knew about Annie, his mother’s sister and Steve’s journalistic tendencies kicked in and he began investigating. Annie had been institutionalized in the 1940s at Eloise, a mental hospital in the Detroit, MI area. She had lived well into Steve’s childhood and he’d never heard mention of her. Through long-lost cousins and old neighbors, Steve starts to piece together his mother’s secret. It’s a trail of old documents, travels to California and back, and even darker secrets into his family that Steve weaves into a wonderful book filled with the real life mysteries of family secrets.

When I read the summary of this book, I thought it was going to bore me to death. About fifty pages in, I started to be intrigued. By halfway, I was completely captured. Luxenberg has a very conversational and natural style of writing which made me forget all the facts and history he was throwing at my face. Luxenberg wrote the book to follow the order in which he discovered the information so the mystery unravels naturally and the reader feels like he is taking the journey with Luxenberg.

There are a few times where Luxenberg runs into legal snags which stop him from getting the data he wants to see. He has to find legal documentation that he is the heir to his mother’s estate, who is the heir to her sister’s estate. Luxenberg is put out that it is so difficult for relatives to find information on their ancestors when they want to. There is a secretary who, early on in the book, comments that she gets several calls a month from people looking for information on long-dead relatives and that she’s seldom able to help them. I was just at a book club meeting where one of the participants said her grandmother died at Eloise but she had no information on her because it was impossible to get access to it. This makes me sad because if the documents exist and the person is a relative, who is being protected by barring the documents? The book implies that it’s to protect doctors but the doctors are probably gone as well. I agree with Luxenberg that it shouldn’t be so difficult for loved ones to get information on their relatives after they pass away.

Luxenberg kept trying to figure out why his mother had lied so frequently about having a sister. By the end of the book, he had concluded that his father had no idea he even had a sister-in-law. Friends of Luxenberg’s mother, Beth, were under the impression that she didn’t want anyone new in her life told about her sister. She thought that she was too old to marry after being a bridesmaid in all of her friends weddings at the beginning of World War II. Beth suspected that having a handicapped sister would further hurt her chances because the men would fear the problem was genetic. After marrying Duke (Luxenberg’s father), Beth might have been ready to reveal her secret, but when Duke himself was institutionalized, Luxenberg things his mother sealed her lips forever, not wanting her husband to doubt their genes. Talk about unfortunate circumstances!

I read another book last year about delving into a family secret, A Secret Gift by Ted Gup, which I did not enjoy as much. I think what intrigued me more about Luxenberg’s book is that he treated his fact-finding like a mystery that the reader was investigating with him instead of retelling a story. I do like that both of these books are based on family histories and the fact-finding of the current generations. It’s cool to hear ‘real’ history about ‘real’ people in the early 1900s (or at least I think it is).

I had to do a family history project when I was in high school about where my grandparents were during World War II. If you’ve never done anything like this, I encourage you to at least ask your older relatives what they were doing in a given decade. I was really fascinated to hear my maternal grandmother was a Candy Striper and my paternal grandparents lived in the Detroit area during the war. I’ll have those memories all my life, even after they’re gone and I won’t have to go memory hunting like Luxenberg did.

Writer’s Takeaway: I think Luxenberg is very engaging as a writer and the way he took the reader through his personal mystery was wonderful because it allowed me to be ready for every twist and turn.

The other thing about Luxenberg’s story that I loved was how non-linear it was, but I was still able to follow it well. His research took him to California, Chicago, and the Ukraine and he ran the gamut of relatives from all sides of his family to conduct interviews and track down old friends. He might jump from Annie to his father as he researched the relationships that these people had, but I could still follow and what Luxenberg wrote always came back to his family. This book was a great example of getting everything summed up and finished at the end of a book that had more arms than an octopus.

Overall, a solid read and I look forward to all the follow-up I’ll have with this book. Four out of five stars.

Related Blog Posts

Diary of an Eccentric (multiple posts)
“Annie’s Ghosts” and Remembering Cora Davis| Jodee Inscho Research

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3 Responses to “Book Review: Annie’s Ghosts by Steve Luxenberg (4/5)”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Book Club Discussion: The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury | Taking on a World of Words - January 22, 2014

    […] It was overall a great discussion. We’ll be reading Annie’s Ghosts next which I’ve already finished and you can read my review here. […]

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  2. Book Club Reflection: Annie’s Ghosts by Steve Luxenberg | Taking on a World of Words - February 4, 2014

    […] posts I will do about the book Annie’s Ghosts before May. You can read my previous book review here. My first book club met last Monday to discuss the book. Annie’s Ghosts was chosen as the […]

    Like

  3. Book Club Reflection Part II: Annie’s Ghosts by Steve Luxenberg | Taking on a World of Words - February 17, 2014

    […] discussion over Annie’s Ghosts. My other book club discussed this two weeks ago and I wrote up my book review about a month ago. Like my other group, there were a mot of personal stories that tied to this book […]

    Like

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