I don’t even remember when I picked up The Witch Elm by Tana French. I couldn’t tell you why I ordered it or when it arrived but it’s been on my book shelf long enough that the edge got dusty which admittedly doesn’t take very long in my house. I’m not much of a housekeeper unfortunately. Anywho, I picked it up one day because I periodically remember that I need more fiction in my life and it had been a heavy week of thinking. I don’t know why I persist in this belief that fiction is any less thought provoking because it isn’t. Maybe it’s just a slightly different provocation.

The past is rarely what we think it is and this forms the main theme of the book. Toby is attacked in his home and the resulting traumatic brain injury causes memory loss. His cousin convinces him to stay with their uncle who is dying because neither of them should be alone right now and there isn’t anyone else in the family who can do it. While trying to restore his memory of the events leading up to his injuries, he begins to realize that there are other hidden secrets as well. A skull is found in the hollow of the titular tree, a mystery that begins to unravel the secrets that the family holds and the lies that Toby has told himself about, well, himself.

David S Mura, in his book A Stranger’s Journey which I’ll surely write about eventually, writes about irreconcilable conflicts and the lies that the protagonist tells themselves to resolve the conflicts and achieve their goal. Toby’s goal is to be a good person, a good friend, a good man. And as the lies come apart he realizes he is may be none of these things.

The past is rarely what we think it is and that along with irreconcilable conflicts and the lies we tell ourselves is also the theme of Nell Irvin Painter’s brilliant work, The History of White People. Here too we have trauma and memory loss, the lies we tell ourselves about who we are and the secrets that begin to unravel when history is revealed. A lot has been written about Black and Indigenous histories, largely by white anthropologists and historians telling us about ourselves so to read a work by a Black historian turning that analysis on whiteness was intriguing. I could be wrong, but I don’t think that anyone has done this before.

Like many others Painter begins with Aristotle and the Greeks in her history of race and whiteness, but unlike others who skip ahead to the Enlightenment era, she travels through the Caucasus Mountains to Germany and across Europe before arriving in the Americas and the world they called new. She describes the elasticity of whiteness, it’s capacity and willingness to expand or contract to ensure that a hierarchy now rooted in race stays in place. Understanding this is important as we watch white kinship become mobilized in service to Ukraine.

A very specific Ukraine by the way, because there are Black Ukrainians just as there are Black Americans and Black Anishinaabeg but white kinship is not being mobilized to help them. It is not being mobilized for Jewish Ukrainians despite their Jewish president. Having a Black president didn’t stop police violence against Black men, and arguably inflamed it if the subsequent election of Trump is any indicator. They aren’t the Ukrainians for whom Germans and Poles are waiting with signs to take people into their homes. They are the Ukrainians who remain outside of the public imagination, they aren’t the ones that come to mind when people talk about Ukraine just as they aren’t the ones who come to mind when people think about Canadians or USians.  White kinship is a very specific kind of kinship, unlike Indigenous kinships that recognize large and expansive networks of relationship.

I liked the way that French used Toby’s traumatic brain injury and memory loss as a mechanism to talk about larger themes of forgetting and self-deception in this family. Toby is not the person he thought he was, family members have other memories of him and the things they did together. Toby’s family is not what he thought it was, somebody was capable of murder and somebody was capable of covering it up. And Toby has to face his own guilt, his own complicity. This is also like whiteness. There is the official memory that is written down in history books and talked about in media, but there are also other memories held by those often left out of the story. And white people need to face their own guilt, their own complicity.

Because it is too easy to say that you didn’t do it. That you didn’t pull the trigger or vandalize the mosque or threaten the synagogue or build residential schools or take the children or any of the things that were surely done by somebody .. just not you. I don’t care if you didn’t do it. I want to know what you did to stop it. I want you to think about what you might have said or done that provoked or legitimized or covered up. I want you to to look at yourself and your history through the eyes of the people who are harmed by the lies you tell yourself.

It was hard for Toby, really hard. And I get that. It’s painful for me to remember my own years in the pro-life movement, my own years subscribing to and promoting teachers like James Dobson and John MacArthur. It’s excruciating to think back on things that I have said and I can’t undo the harms. But what I can do is work against them now. I can transform them by recognizing them as harm. and by confronting it when I recognize it in others.

In response to yet another incident of Christians Behaving Badly Twitter user @EmExAstris tweeted out

“there is a difference between malicious antisemitism and clueless antisemitism, but once someone has been informed that they said something antisemitic they are no longer clueless and *almost everyone* decides to upgrade to malicious. *That’s* the problem.”

There were reasons that Toby didn’t know things, and reasons why he didn’t always respond to opportunities the way that he could have. Analyzing the why is important because once your participation or complicity in oppression is pointed out you are no longer innocent, you are now responsible and unfortunately the history of white people is that almost everyone decides to upgrade to willfully oppressive.

The secrets we keep

The Witch Elm and The History of White People