The author's photo on the inside back flap shows a strong, handsome older woman with striking dark eyes and a faint smile that speaks of wry humor and dry pain. In "Kentucky Clay", we will learn that the eyes, along with the humor and the pain, are family traits well-earned and well-honored.
Bateman has ancestors from both the Clays (founding families of Virginia and Kentucky) and Cecils (founding families of Maryland and Virginia), placing her in the direct lineage of American royalty. But to say that she traces her lineage to those families would be incorrect - rather, as she writes near the end of her personal journey, "my family found me."
As a genealogist and family biographer, Bateman is in a unique position; since the core Clay and Cecil families are so well known and historically important, the basic genealogies had already been done and family stories remembered and compiled. What she brings to the table, from her career as an art historian, is the research and writing skills to turn family stories into solid documented history.
Not to say that this is an impersonal, dry history, even though in the course of her researches Bateman is forced to revise some family legends--and enjoys the thrill of confirming others with documentary evidence. Bateman does a great job of helping us meet and understand the strong Clay men, and stronger Cecil women in her past, and in the end the story becomes very personal indeed. We learn how Bateman's grandmother and mother both lived out the best and worst traits of their lineage, and passed them on to her.
The book includes a map and family tree that you will reference frequently to help you place people and events in geographic and family context. The photograph section features portraits and candids of many of the key places (houses are important to the history) and people, although I wished for more pictures of Bateman's grandmother Wynemah (a central character in the history, and a sultry beauty in the picture of her as a young woman) with her children and grandchildren. Of course, as events unfold, their absence is perhaps understandable and for the best.
I debated whether to rate this book four stars ("worth my time"; see my profile for a description of my personal rating scale) or a full five stars, indicating a timeless and universal classic. While a personal genealogy and memoir would normally limit the universal appeal of a book, the historical significance of the Clay and Cecil families extends the reach of this effort, and Bateman's personalization of the stories of pain, joys, and personalities are timeless. So I decided to rate this a classic. I think any reader will see how their families shape them, and how they can embrace the pains and the joys to take their own place.
Both in fiction and in nonfiction, I tend not to be into "sweeping family sagas that span the generations" (as they so often seem to be described). Authors' celebrations of their own ancestry and heritage seldom fascinate me as much as it does them. That's why I was pleasantly surprised by what a good read "Kentucky Clay" turned out to be. While I'm not sure how accurate the description of the family as a "dynasty" really is, it seems pretty clear they certainly thought (think?) of themselves that … more
I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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"With wit and candor, Bateman reveals her lifelong struggle to avoid the disturbing patterns of [her family's colorful] legacy, while mining the emotional gifts passed on to her." —Nancy Horan, author, Loving Frank
"With storytelling skill, historical research, and a questioning imagination, Katherine Bateman follows her family's odyssey in America since the seventeenth century." —Jean B. Lee, professor of history, University of Wisconsin-Madison
"This riveting book is at once a journey into centuries of the American past and a deeply personal family saga, coupling the author’s meticulous historical research with her passionate curiosity and vivid imagination." —Ronne Hartfield, author, Another Way Home: The Tangled Roots of Race in One Chicago Family
"A most readable family history." —The Decatur Daily