Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Who Owes What to Whom

Genealogy has certainly illuminated many other fields for me such as geography, sociology, history (of course), and even philosophy, psychology and literature. And as I have noted here before, these disciplines are essential to an illumination of what one finds in genealogy. So one of the pleasures of this endeavor is the gentle caress of flowing between genealogy and these other disciplines. That's especially true of literature.

I read novels of all genres with greater insight, and thus greater enjoyment because of the polishing of knowledge that comes through genealogy.

Recently, I came across the best-seller What You Owe Me by Bebe Moore Campbell. The title and even the publisher's jacket cover notes were a bit off-putting, leading me to believe it was likely a screed about individual reparations for slavery. But I read it anyway.

Turns out to be a terrific read that explores the concept of obligation in the infinite combinations of human relationships. Yes, the key characters are a black woman and a Jewish woman Holocaust survivor. And indeed, it appears on the surface that one has done the other a great wrong. But to walk away from this novel thinking that is to leave it not thinking at all. A reader who misses the lessons, not all that subtle, for parents and children, and for neighbor and neighbor, hasn't really read this book. Indeed, the sardonicism of the title won't escape the sophiscated reader by the end.

The novel spans the twentieth century's fifty postwar years in Los Angeles and gives a credible glimpse at the sociological and demographic shifts over that time. It's also got a little mystery and little romance.

What I Owe

Like the father of one of the characters in What You Owe Me, my father was born in a small town in Texas. My mother was born in Kansas City. They were both born in the bleakest days of the Depression before the "New Deal" was conceived as a slogan or a program and less than seventy years --the span of one human lifetime--after the Emancipation Proclamation. The odds were not in their favor. But they never looked at life that way. They both made it to and through college and raised four children. And they never felt "owed" anything by anybody. I've come to realize that while my folks moved from zero to 100 in life, I, by comparison, started at 100 and moved to 101. Nobody owes me . . . I'm the debtor here.

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