~by Steve Luxenberg
I first heard about Annie's Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret through the Early Reviewers program at LibraryThing. It sounded intriguing, and I requested the book, but it was not meant to be--at least at that time. Fortunately, I was contacted by the lovely people at FSB Associates who offered a copy for review, which I gladly accepted. Shortly after that, the book and the author, Steve Luxenberg, were featured on NPR. I'm very glad I had the chance to read and review Annie's Ghosts because it's among the best books I've read this year, and certainly the best work of non-fiction.
When Beth Luxenberg dies, her children are surprised to learn that she had a sister named Annie who had previously passed away. There were rumors a few years before, but their mother had always described herself as an only child and they never asked her about it. Upon discovering concrete evidence of Annie's existence, Steve Luxenberg decides to uncover as much of the truth of his mother's secret as he can; some of his siblings support wholeheartedly his project while others are more reluctant, concerned he will learn things they were never meant to know. But there must be a reason that Beth never mentioned her sister and kept Annie hidden, right?
Luxenberg's writing reads extraordinarily well; it is both accessible and engrossing. As an author, investigative journalist, and award winning editor at the Washington Post, he is able to capture his audience's attention while convening important information and details without breaking his narrative flow. At the same time, this flow can be somewhat meandering. A few of the tangents he follows, while connected to his family history in general, aren't always directly related to his search for Annie and the reason behind his mother's secret. Try as he might, he can't quite tie these substantial segments in; they are very interesting if not quite on topic, though. (I'm particularly thinking about one of his cousin's story of surviving the Holocaust, but there are other examples.)
Overall, I was very pleased with the book. Luxenberg tries to give his readers, and therefore himself, as much closure as is possible; given the situation, there are just some things no one living will ever know for sure. What I particularly liked about Annie's Ghosts is that the author is able to use his own family's story to explore elements that extend beyond it. Everything from the care, diagnoses, institutions and stigma surrounding the mentally ill and disabled in the United States and how it has changed over time to family dynamics and why secrets are kept to begin with--these being only a few of the areas Luxenberg introduces All of these topics are at least touched upon if not more fully addressed throughout the book. Thankfully, a good index, decent chapter notes, and other supplementary materials are included to help keep everything and everyone straight. Annie's Ghosts is wonderfully executed, and I would not hesitate to recommend it to others.