'The Lyncher in Me' by Warren Read

A man's search for his family's history turns up a vengeful ancestor.

By Dinah Lenney, Special to The Times

March 18, 2008

Nothing like parenthood to put us in mind of family history; or is it simply middle age -- intimations of our own mortality -- that sends us searching for ghosts? As the parent of three adopted sons, Warren Read goes digging into the past. Having survived neglect and abuse, it doesn't occur to him to worry about what he'll discover when he types his mother's maiden name into a search engine. "What stories could I possibly find in my lineage that would be more scandalous than those that existed in my own memories?" he writes. But the truth sends him reeling: Louis Dondino, beloved patriarch, the author's great-grandfather, served time in connection with three lynchings in Duluth, Minn., more than 80 years ago.

The author gets off to a compelling start with an account of that terrible night in June 1920. A white teenage couple, for reasons that are not entirely clear, invented the story that she'd been raped by a group of blacks working for a traveling circus. Before the facts of the case could be determined, several men, among them Dondino, rounded up a posse who broke into the Duluth jail to deliver their own justice. Amid shouts for vengeance, the whites hung three of those accused of the crime from a town streetlight, then triumphantly posed for the photo that would be sold as a souvenir of the event. Dondino was convicted, along with two other men, for inciting the riot that led to the murders.

Read's memoir is a patchwork -- history, biography, true crime and gardening tips (the digging metaphor is relentless) -- organized in three parts to reflect his circuitous emotional journey. In the first and second sections he alternates between a narrative of the crime and boyhood recollections; his father's abandonment of wife and children, and his consequent suffering at the hands of his stepfather. But by the end of Part 2, he's given the key- note address at a Duluth memorial to the lynching. After doing so, he acknowledges that he "rode a high like none other I'd ever felt." Having gotten a taste of "forgiveness and atonement," he cannot seem to get enough.

As for the memoir portion of the program, this is not a conventional coming-of-age story. While Read plays connect-the-dots with the family legacy of alcoholism and violence, that all takes a back seat to the more recent past. The author has become a fount of empathy; loving son, father, partner, teacher, (and gardener), he identifies with victims and perpetrators alike. Even so, the reader can't get over the feeling that this book's raison d'être has everything to do with reliving the moment when Read stepped before a crowd of 2,000 to shoulder the burden of guilt for a crime that happened long before he was born.

Inordinately moved by his own redemption, Read's inclined to quote himself one time too many. He's devoted to long sentences -- and longer asides -- and smitten with similes and metaphors. As vivid as it is in places, the prose can also be awkward, convoluted and pedantic. "A horror story envelops many families as they frantically hack workable paths through the thickets of divorce," he writes. "Through a child's eyes, this experience can be suspiciously delightful, though no less confusing and uncomfortable as the dark elements of the true narrative come into view, the deceptive facade of pleasantries and promise fading into the background." He betrays his own efforts again and again. Eager to be literary, Read has forgotten his obligation to be clear.

It isn't until Part 3 that he gives us a biography of the short, unhappy life of Elmer Jackson, the most stoic of the victims of his great-grandfather's crime. The others begged for their lives, according to Read, but not so Jackson, who "gazed calmly and resignedly at the . . . noose dangling above his head, then let his eyes scan coolly the white faces glaring back at him."

Not finished atoning, off Read goes to Pennytown, Mo., where Jackson was born and raised, to deliver another apology to anyone who will listen at an annual town reunion. "The roots of hatred, anger and violence are all still there," he says to an attendee. "I just think we all have a responsibility to take the good and bad things that have been laid before us . . . and make them work for today," he observes, in parting, to the reunion organizer, but it sounds as though he is addressing his fourth-grade class on Bainbridge Island, Wash. Well-intentioned, of course, but Read is unable to distract us from the realization that he's the hero of his own tale; something no memoirist can afford to be.

Dinah Lenney is the author of "Bigger Than Life: A Murder, a Memoir."

The Lyncher in Me
A Search for Redemption in the Face of History

Warren Read
Borealis Books: 202 pp., $24.95