As I read this book, I drew a family tree so I could keep better track of all the people. I’m not sure I could have absorbed the story without it.
A family tree that only showed who-begat-whom didn’t suffice. It matters, for instance, when there is an age gap of ten years between a person and the rest of her siblings. I found it helpful to note who died without learning English, who passed easily for white, which relatives spent time together. It’s worthwhile to connect the important events of people’s lives with famous dates of American history. I also thought it was interesting to ask which of my ancestors was contemporaneous with the various people whose lives I learned about. The more details I added to this drawing, the less tidy it got and the more I felt the sense of what the author was trying to communicate.
Each of the eight chapters of Bloodlines loops through the histories of many different people, revealing the connections they share. In each telling and retelling of remembered events and family stories, Janet Campbell Hale reflects her own process of repeatedly revisiting her own bewildering history, and with each visit adds new layers of meaning and confusion.
As you read this book, construct a family tree with as much detail you can fit into it. It’s important to keep track of all the people and what can be understood from their lives. Keep these questions in mind as well:
- Bloodlines was published in 1993, before the term “transgenerational trauma” entered the national vocabulary. Describe some of the ways that transgenerational trauma operates in Janet Campbell Hale’s life story.
- The memoir tells quite a few stories of verbal abuse. How do the cruel things that family members say harm and confuse the author? How does verbal abuse figure into cross-cultural communication between Native Americans and the people who displaced them? Consider, for instance, the term “Siwash.” Does cultural verbal abuse do the same kind of harm as verbal abuse among family members?
- “Gaslighting” is another term that has entered the national vocabulary in the time since Bloodlines was published. How do accepted stories from American history serve to gaslight native people? Where does gaslighting occur in the author’s own life?
- Janet Campbell Hale’s family is the last surviving family of the Turtle Clan. What is the significance of the turtle dream that she describes?
- The author visits various places she lived as a child, but the visits never offer complete resolution. What kinds of things get in the way? Have you had similar experiences revisiting important locations from your own past? Have you ever tried to visit a place that was simply not there anymore?
- Learning about scapegoating gives Hale new insights about her place in her family. What happens when she shares that insight with her mother? How is it possible for both versions of the past to be true?
- At one point, Hale suggests that Bloodlines is “therapeutic writing.” What’s that? How would therapeutic writing be different from autobiography or journalism? What kinds of understanding can therapeutic writing deliver which other types of writing can’t?
- In the chapter “Autobiography as Fiction” Hale attempts to draw clean fictional portraits of women who could be her. In the chapter “Daughter of Winter” she asks the reader to imagine a video of various events. Why doesn’t she just “tell it straight?”
- What do you make of the ending? Of all the scenes and images the author could have depicted, why do you think she chose the ones she did for her last paragraph? What connections can you draw between that paragraph and the close of the first chapter where she says that she is a “broken-off piece” of her family?