Monday, May 10, 2010

Annie's Ghosts, My Review

I first heard of Annie's Ghosts, by Steve Luxenberg, last December when I came across the 2010 Michigan Notable Books list, which I included on my blog. Annie's Ghosts captured my interest because the description on the book list mentioned genealogy, family secrets, and a Detroit setting. I made a mental note to pick up a copy. And then with the all the hustle and bustle of the holiday season I forgot all about it.

A couple weeks ago, I received an email from someone at Hyperion Books asking if I would consider writing a review of the book in exchange for a free copy. I didn't have to think long about that offer! I was pleased when the book came in the mail and I started reading it the same day. Today I finished reading Annie's Ghosts and I want to write about it while it is still fresh in my mind.

But I'm torn.

I want to tell you all about it, because it's a very, very good read. But at the same time, I don't want to spoil it for you. If you have ties to Detroit in the 1920s-1940s, you'll find this book really interesting. If you have family members who were residents at Eloise (mental health facility), you really, really need to read this book! I wrote previously about looking for Eloise Hospital records, to no avail. The records are virtually impossible to access (what's left of them), but the author of this book had a good measure of success. If you want to know how he did it, you'll have to get the book. The process was far too complicated for me to include in this review. I will tell you this, it's very revealing. If you are a genealogist, you'll love this book. It gives you the research insights, process, and details so many people found lacking in the television series, "Who Do You Think You Are?" It's what you wish "WDYTYA?" was, complete with footnotes and comments about the entire research process.

I was caught up in the story of Annie's Ghosts right from the beginning. Aside from the fact that Steve is a terrific writer (Pulitzer Prize-winning senior editor at the Washington Post), I found many parallels with my own family's history. My grandparents were from Poland and Russian-Poland as were Steve's only my family was Polish Catholic where his were Jewish. But like him we too have a death-at-the-hands-of-the-Nazis story. Our family had their share of secrets too, including members who were residents at Eloise. My dad's stint in and discharge from the Army during WWII was eerily similar to Steve's dad's. All in all, it was a captivating read for me. I learned about records and sources I didn't know existed and I've been a genealogy hobbiest in this neck of the woods for quite some time.

If you're interested in mysteries, genealogical mysteries specifically, you'll enjoy this book even if you don't have ties to Michigan. The author does a thorough job of detailing the research steps he took uncovering his mother's secret. I especially enjoyed his insights, assumptions, hypotheses, and general thoughts shared along the way. Steve does a wonderful job of exposing the nightmare that was Michigan's (and most other state's) asylum mental health care system of the 1860s - 1970s.

You can read Steve's own description of what the book is about here on his web site, so I won't try to write a better summary of the book. If you visit his web site you'll also notice that he has become quite the advocate of making patient health/mental health records accessible to family members, especially after their deaths. If you live in Michigan, you can meet Steve in person at 5 different locations starting this week.

Enjoy the book! I did!


  1. I too loved this book for all the reasons you mention. Now I have to re-read it, since I am reminded that my husband has relatives in the Detroit area (Polish-Russina/Jewish). Great review - thanks!


  2. My husband gave me this book for Mother's Day 2009 and I loved it!!

  3. Yes, what a great book! I couldn't put it down when I read it a few months ago. I posted a few of my favorite "family history" quotes from it on my blog. I was impressed with how careful he was with his interviews, to ask his questions objectively and not try to sway the interviewee one way or the other. I was pleased with how carefully he detailed for the reader the thought processes and steps he went through in his searches. I wish he'd been able to find a photograph of Annie. My only (small) disappointment was that he'd had an army of helpers doing research for him behind the scenes - students scouring newspapers, etc. - instead of doing it all himself.

  4. THIS explains your comment on my FB mention of the book. Nope, I wasn't asked to review it--got it at my local public library. :-) It was a great read and I found myself enjoying the Detroit setting more for having read your blog AND my time spent there a couple of years ago. And family secrets have alway intrigued me--

  5. We saw Steve at the Faust Library in Westland and were very intrigued by his story. It is a good book.

  6. When was he in Westland Valerie? I would have really enjoyed meeting Steve. Maybe next time he comes around...

  7. It was last May, if I recall correctly. Yes, it might be worth it to hear him speak again.

  8. Excellent! Thanks for the heads-up on this one, Jasia, I really enjoyed it.

  9. I'm reading it now on my NOOKcolor and think it's fabulous! If it weren't for my kid needing to eat, and other obligations, I wouldn't put it down until I was finished!