As a child, award-winning journalist Alan Weisman had often heard his father tell the family legend of how Communists murdered his grandfather in the Ukraine. But years later, he meets a long-estranged uncle who recounts a very different version. His search to determine the truth leads Weisman from his Minnesota boyhood to Chernobyl and finally back to the monstrous pogroms of the Russian Revolution. On the way, he learns that many of his family’s stories have been altered, and discovers a universal reality: that all immigrant families, in order to survive in a new world, must create protective myths – like the one that hides the true fate of his grandfather.
While unraveling his own tangled heritage, Weisman’s work for an NPR series titled “Vanishing Homelands“ introduces him to a new generation of immigrants wrenched from their native soil, all desperate to reinvent themselves. These encounters become a resonant counterpoint to Weisman’s personal search: his often harrowing adventures in places like rebel-torn Colombia, and even under Antarctica’s ozone hole, strangely begin to echo his father’s saga through turn-of-the-century Russia, the Depression, World War II, and the McCarthy era. Ultimately, they help to reveal his family’s truth, and show how history – and secrets – echo on through generations.
At once an examination of his rootless age and the real legacy of his forefathers, An Echo in My Blood shows that we inherit not only our parents’ traits but their struggles to survive their times – times that reverberate through our own lives more deeply than we might acknowledge.
A note from the author
Every so often, a journalist stumbles upon a story so irresistible in details and symbolism that it screams to be told. My 1998 book, Gaviotas, about visionaries attempting a utopia in the middle of hell, was like that. It had wonderfully original characters, a lush but menacing setting – Colombia – plus a captivating universal theme: the struggle against seemingly impossible odds.
Whenever I’ve been lucky enough to encounter such a potent scenario, I’ve felt blessed – until this time. An Echo in My Blood comes from the last place I ever look for material: my own life. Yet, there it was – painful, private, powerful, and impossible to avoid. In 1991, not long before my father died – yet when his mind was already too far gone for me to challenge him – I’d dined with his brother, an uncle I barely knew because for years they didn’t speak. At one point that evening, I casually referred to the tale I’d heard my father tell all my life about what happened to our family back in Ukraine, where he was born. That saga had assumed mythic proportions during my childhood, so I was stunned when my uncle interrupted and said, “That’s not what happened.”
The path I would follow in the coming years while trying to solve the riddle of these two conflicting accounts – a discrepancy that had torn brothers and cousins apart – would take me to five continents, and would have implications far beyond my family. The secret lay buried in a legacy concealed from my generation, but one I’d unconsciously sensed nonetheless: unbeknownst to me, it had always been guiding the choice of subjects I’d pursued as a writer.
To uncover it meant not just turning the tools of journalism on my relatives, but entering a history of my people I’d never before considered relevant to me. Not only did I discover truths there about my family, but about everyone’s. History, it turns out, matters. The headlines of yesterday formed the backdrop for our forebears’ lives. In no small part, as a result they became who they did – an obvious notion, perhaps, but one that repeatedly staggered me as I probed my own family. It also echoed something that, as a professional, I’d strived continually to convey: that whether we choose to ignore current events or not, they affect us. Like history, the news matters. The conundrum that journalists face daily is how to make readers care about seemingly remote incidents. “This concerns you,” we plead. “Listen!”
You – and your children. Just as our parents’ times become our legacy, the fallout from our own era will land on the next generation. An Echo in My Blood invokes a deeply personal – at times, mortifying – chronicle to show how this phenomenon has played out in my family. Although everyone’s details differ, I’m beholden to many people who, upon hearing me tell this story, urged me to write it.
Because, they insisted, in it they recognized themselves and their own kin.
Read an excerpt of An Echo in My Blood.
“An Echo in My Blood is a wonderful book – a fascinating, very powerful and honest memoir, rich in texture, emotion, revelation. Poignant, and often heartbreaking, it is also a fabulous and deeply touching history lesson. Miracles of survival resonate on every page despite the devastation of war and other cataclysms. Alan Weisman describes the dilemmas of our planet today as he delves with brutal intimacy into the heart of his own family in an important chronicle of love and hate and all that lies between. The author is an exceptional writer, a gifted son, a courageous detective. This is by far the most gripping, thought-provoking, and rewarding story that I have read in a long time, and it will remain with me always.”
– John Nichols, author of The Milagro Beanfield War and The Sterile Cuckoo
“In this elegant memoir, Weisman ties together his complicated relationship with his oppressive father and his present job reporting on the ‘unprecedented social dislocation’ taking place in the Third World today. The result is remarkable, sensitive history, where the present supplies meaning to the past, and the past provides context for the present. ‘Displaced people create new histories, or revise old ones, to define themselves in alien settings,’ observes Weisman. ‘Family secrets can’t really be kept – the facts may dissolve away, but their consequences remain.’ Highly recommended.”
– Library Journal
“Alan Weisman is a courageous and intrepid journalist who never veers from the hard story or complex issue. He was born to write An Echo in My Blood, but what a moving and absorbing narrative – equal parts memoir and detective story – he has wrought! He unravels the knotted and tangled threads of personal history, moving closer to a deeply hidden family secret. His discoveries after a globe-trotting quest are at once personal and universal. Datelined in the human heart, An Echo in My Blood will reach and uplift every reader.”
– David Haward Bain, author of Empire Express and Sitting in Darkness