Searching for Nannie B, a review

nannie b

Searching for Nannie B is many things: part detective story, part how-to manual, part imaginative voyage across space and time to recover the identify of a lost family member.

Nancy Owen Nelson sets out to learn as much as she can about her maternal grandmother, Nannie B. Russell Chandler, who died on July 12, 1905, while giving birth to Nelson’s mother. Nelson’s mother has only a few fragmented, secondhand details of her Nannie B’s life. Nelson seeks to understand the “legacy of silence and guilt” around Nannie B. She writes, “For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to rescue my mother from invisibility [and] from a feeling that she belonged nowhere.” And so begins a period of investigation. In seeking answers to the question—Who was she?—Nelson also addresses the question—Who am I?

Nelson’s ancestral search is dogged, dramatic, and compelling. A skilled researcher by trade (she is a PhD from Auburn University, a prolific literary critic, editor of letters by the Western author Frederick Manfred and a collection of critical essays on Manfred), she makes use of her skills, accessing both primary and secondary sources to piece together what she can of her grandmother’s story. The search begins on her desktop, as Ancestry.com provides her with a few promising leads, and continues by phone to local archivists, culminating in trips to her native Alabama, where she locates her grandmother’s grave. The cemetery she ultimately visits, she notes, isn’t even on the map.

Then come interviews and conversations, yielding more information about her grandmother—how much education she might have completed, who her friends were, what aspirations a woman of the South would have had at the turn of the 20th century. Over and over again, Nelson encounters the fact of effacement, the precarious status of women’s identities at the time. The cemetery record for her grandmother reads, “Nanie B, wife of R.E. Chandler.”

One of the delights of this book is the imaginative journey as Nelson connects with her grandmother. She imagines her grandparents traveling a muddy road after a rain, her grandmother a few months pregnant. “Her husband Robert eases the horses over the bumps while he rests his left hand gently on her belly.” As her search begins, in a dream Nelson is “driving a wagon with horses over a muddy country roads. My mother is with me. All I know is that we are trying to find my grandmother’s grave.”

And throughout the book are references to music, to her maternal grandmother’s and her (Nelson’s) mother’s singing. Nelson writes, “I must sing for my grandmother, and for my mother. I must give Nanny B. Russell a voice.” The result in this inspiring book is a work of three-part harmony. She is richly successful in her quest.

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