"Not From Here: a Memoir" by Allan G. Johnson

Richard Smaby
BOOK REVIEW

Allan Johnson, sociologist, author and speaker, has shared with us a deeply personal journey, as he comes to terms with who he is. He is in possession of his father's ashes, a father who, it seems, gave him no guidance about where to scatter them. "Makes no difference to me at all." He travels from his home in Connecticut to the Midwest, but the travels in his mind range even more broadly, seeking an identity, a history he can call his own. His travels take him to the formation of a nation of immigrants including his ancestors, who displace the Indigenous Peoples. He muses painfully on the replacement of an intimate belonging to the land by an unrooted ethic that treats it as mere property. Without a sense of belonging to the land Johnson is lost in his quest to find a place for his father's ashes. "It was my fate to be born a white man in the United States." Not From Here is part diary, part genealogy, part political philosophy, and partly an essay on our national conscience.

Genealogy

Johnson draws the reader along in the discovery of the details of his personal ancestral history with the recurrent question of whether each most recent town cemetery might be the place where his father belongs. The excitement mounts as church and county records bring him closer to the family farm and the house his grandfather was born in.

Native Americans and Political Philosophy

Johnson feels a very personal guilt for the way Europeans removed the Native Americans from their lands. A sharing in a collective guilt, for ripping them from the earth where they belonged, and wondering what direct role his own Norwegian ancestors might have played. And a profound personal sense of loss of place, destroyed by others' greed for ownership. He cites history, for example, the Dawes Allotment Act of 1887, which broke up communal lands and divided off more than 28 million acres for whites. He recounts the well-known history of broken treaties as Europeans pushed further and further west. He recalls the painting American Progress, proudly showing covered wagons and trains bringing settlers and chasing Native Americans before them, published in travel guides in the 1870's.

American Progress
American Progress

Style

Johnson's style is reflective and pleasurable.

"So, who are my father's people? Such a simple question, but then why don't I answer it, instead of driving down the road and looking into fields, trying to tell the difference between a black cow and a buffalo."

It shares honestly both the joy of discovery and a sense of inadequacy when facing a new thing.

"The city falls away behind me, and then I am looking at the beginning of something I have never seen, a vast rolling expanse of prairie free of everything but grass, beneath a sky full of low gray clouds, soft and still. I drive on, not quite knowing what to do."

This memoir will please the thoughtful genealogist who shares a love of discovery of self and of his own community of ancestors. It will please the historian who sees history through personal connection. It will please those who grapple with assessing their shared responsibility for a shared history, however unsavory.

Further Reading

"The farms seem so far apart that I wonder how people make it through the winter, if they are lonely on the prairie."

To answer Johnson's question I recommend reading Ole Rølvaag's novel Giants in the Earth. The first of a trilogy it relates the struggles of a Norwegian immigrant family in a foreign land, a foreign landscape, a foreign language and culture. It is a tale of depression and failed adaptation.