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Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery

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After the Civil War, African Americans placed poignant "information wanted" advertisements in newspapers, searching for missing family members. Inspired by the power of these ads, Heather Andrea Williams uses slave narratives, letters, interviews, public records, and diaries to guide readers back to devastating moments of family separation during slavery when people were s After the Civil War, African Americans placed poignant "information wanted" advertisements in newspapers, searching for missing family members. Inspired by the power of these ads, Heather Andrea Williams uses slave narratives, letters, interviews, public records, and diaries to guide readers back to devastating moments of family separation during slavery when people were sold away from parents, siblings, spouses, and children. Williams explores the heartbreaking stories of separation and the long, usually unsuccessful journeys toward reunification. Examining the interior lives of the enslaved and freedpeople as they tried to come to terms with great loss, Williams grounds their grief, fear, anger, longing, frustration, and hope in the history of American slavery and the domestic slave trade. Williams follows those who were separated, chronicles their searches, and documents the rare experience of reunion. She also explores the sympathy, indifference, hostility, or empathy expressed by whites about sundered black families. Williams shows how searches for family members in the post-Civil War era continue to reverberate in African American culture in the ongoing search for family history and connection across generations.


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After the Civil War, African Americans placed poignant "information wanted" advertisements in newspapers, searching for missing family members. Inspired by the power of these ads, Heather Andrea Williams uses slave narratives, letters, interviews, public records, and diaries to guide readers back to devastating moments of family separation during slavery when people were s After the Civil War, African Americans placed poignant "information wanted" advertisements in newspapers, searching for missing family members. Inspired by the power of these ads, Heather Andrea Williams uses slave narratives, letters, interviews, public records, and diaries to guide readers back to devastating moments of family separation during slavery when people were sold away from parents, siblings, spouses, and children. Williams explores the heartbreaking stories of separation and the long, usually unsuccessful journeys toward reunification. Examining the interior lives of the enslaved and freedpeople as they tried to come to terms with great loss, Williams grounds their grief, fear, anger, longing, frustration, and hope in the history of American slavery and the domestic slave trade. Williams follows those who were separated, chronicles their searches, and documents the rare experience of reunion. She also explores the sympathy, indifference, hostility, or empathy expressed by whites about sundered black families. Williams shows how searches for family members in the post-Civil War era continue to reverberate in African American culture in the ongoing search for family history and connection across generations.

30 review for Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery

  1. 4 out of 5

    Chrissie

    This book is a valuable documentation of the emotional sufferings of the African American people. As an historical recording of the past it is important. It puts down in writing what has been passed down from generation to generation verbally. Black slave families were torn apart. Their separation, their attempts to find each other again and documentation of those rare instances when reunification was achieved, all is recorded in detailed specifics. Individual by individual. Both the research an This book is a valuable documentation of the emotional sufferings of the African American people. As an historical recording of the past it is important. It puts down in writing what has been passed down from generation to generation verbally. Black slave families were torn apart. Their separation, their attempts to find each other again and documentation of those rare instances when reunification was achieved, all is recorded in detailed specifics. Individual by individual. Both the research and the subsequent documentation are thorough. Many, many adds of individuals searching for their kin are quoted. As a documentation of history, what is recorded here is essential. Reading this is however tedious. One does not come close to any one individual. It is a collection of facts about the suffering of the African American people. I value this as a reference book, but I cannot recommend it as a book to sit down and read. It is hard to absorb. It is repetitive. The emotional grief recorded is terrible but being given a huge number of instances becomes simply wearing. I personally would have preferred a book that focuses on a handful of people with each individual followed in depth. That is a completely different book. The book focuses primarily on the era of the Civil War and the decades after. It aims to illustrate the subjugation and emotional suffering of the African American people of that time. It is stressed that Blacks were then viewed as unfeeling creatures. Nobody would ever make such a claim today! Demonstrating to readers the absurdity of such an idea is not necessary! It’s obvious. One gets tired of the obvious being made clear over and over again. What is set forth here in this book is today common knowledge. The book is valuable as a recording of fact, as a reference volume. Robin Miles narrates the audiobook very well. Her voice is pleasant to listen to. Words are spoken clearly, and the tempo is fine. The narration I have given four stars.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Andre

    What a great and worthy contribution made by Heather Williams. She absolutely explodes the myth of uncaring, unfeeling, unemotional and detached African-Americans coming out of slavery. Inspired by "information wanted" ads that the former enslaved placed in newspapers and sent to church bulletins to help them reconnect with family members lost during slavery, Ms. Williams examines the emotional impact of these separations.  Her research centers around these notices and the depth of that research What a great and worthy contribution made by Heather Williams. She absolutely explodes the myth of uncaring, unfeeling, unemotional and detached African-Americans coming out of slavery. Inspired by "information wanted" ads that the former enslaved placed in newspapers and sent to church bulletins to help them reconnect with family members lost during slavery, Ms. Williams examines the emotional impact of these separations.  Her research centers around these notices and the depth of that research shows up in this wonderful book. Although the book is historical, it doesn't read like a dense academic disquisition. The prose is novel-like and vignettes are used throughout the book to illustrate the feelings of obvious grief and separation. It's really amazing to learn that after being in servitude for years, one would have enough energy and resilience to look for loved ones, that in some cases they had not seen in 20, 30 years. So often the picture painted around slavery, is that the enslaved were docile and lacking in emotional substance. After reading this book, you will never allow such expressions to be voiced in your presence. I think this book should be required reading for everyone in America!  There are some great lessons here, one talks about a woman returning to her "husband" after taking up with another man, because she thought her "husband" was dead. Is that not an example of how serious they thought of "marriage?"  Another details a love letter written by a John to his former "wife" explaining his present predicament of a failed remarriage, and he was writing to inquire about her current status. I use quotes around husband, wife and marriage because, property can't legally marry. But despite that reality, these unions were taken seriously and often honored.  Do yourself a favor and take this journey with Heather Andrea Williams. I'm thrilled I did and you will be also.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Bensmomma

    Really brilliant and terrifically moving. The audio narrator is particularly warm and engaging.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Megan

    This is a heartbreaking work on the impact of family separation during slavery. For anyone concerned about the current practice of family separation in detention centers, this is a timely and necessary read, as it illuminates the long-term social and emotional costs of such cruelty.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Sasha

    I shed a few tears the other day watching an interview with the author of this book I just finished reading it, and while I didn't cry, I was moved again and again by the stories of loss and longing. I am a family historian, and I am sure that my interest began as a child in part because of a feeling of my history being missing, especially after seeing old family photos in the home of my best friend. Since that time I not only research my own family's history, but I research for many friends, fa I shed a few tears the other day watching an interview with the author of this book I just finished reading it, and while I didn't cry, I was moved again and again by the stories of loss and longing. I am a family historian, and I am sure that my interest began as a child in part because of a feeling of my history being missing, especially after seeing old family photos in the home of my best friend. Since that time I not only research my own family's history, but I research for many friends, family, acquaintances, DNA cousins, and whole communities. This quote from the book really speaks to me: Genealogy is personal, it is individual and it is private; but it also contributes to a larger work of naming people, of recognizing their existence, and of saying that their existence is worthy of remembrance.Of course, I found myself looking for names I might know as I read all of the stories of families seeking loved ones. I think knowing about the struggles of my ancestors encouraged me live a life worthy of their efforts.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Priscilla Herrington

    Williams has done extensive research in newspaper advertisements, diaries and letters to show the effects of slavery on African-American families. While the bulk of her primary sources date from the immediate post-Civil War period, she demonstrates that even earlier, family members avidly sought news of spouses, children, parents, other relatives, even friends, who had been sold away. Even though they might never see each other again, they were concerned for their missing relatives, begging for Williams has done extensive research in newspaper advertisements, diaries and letters to show the effects of slavery on African-American families. While the bulk of her primary sources date from the immediate post-Civil War period, she demonstrates that even earlier, family members avidly sought news of spouses, children, parents, other relatives, even friends, who had been sold away. Even though they might never see each other again, they were concerned for their missing relatives, begging for news and sending on details of their own lives. Of the records Williams perused, it appears that few of these searchers were rewarded with eventual reunification; however, the records are incomplete and it is apparently not possible to determine what percentage of attempts had a happy outcome. Help Me to Find My People is a testament to the strength of slave families, despite all the factors against them.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Pghbekka

    Should be required reading as part of any U.S. History class.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Caroline

    This book focuses on one of the most inhuman and heart wrenching aspects of American slavery - the destruction of families through sale, the separation of husbands from wives, mothers from children, brothers and sisters from one another, often never to be seen again. It's an aspect of slavery that almost every book on the period touches on, but to read an entire study devoted to the topic makes for painful reading. Williams breaks her study into three, the first section focusing on the separation This book focuses on one of the most inhuman and heart wrenching aspects of American slavery - the destruction of families through sale, the separation of husbands from wives, mothers from children, brothers and sisters from one another, often never to be seen again. It's an aspect of slavery that almost every book on the period touches on, but to read an entire study devoted to the topic makes for painful reading. Williams breaks her study into three, the first section focusing on the separation itself, the second on the search for family members, both during slavery and after its end, and finally on the lucky few who succeeded in reuniting their families. Her narrative draws up on letters and memoirs, lectures, newspaper ads, late in life interviews and memories from descendants. Reading these tales of loss and grief in the words of those affected makes this an incredibly powerful read, so much more than many histories of slavery and the Civil War that focus on facts and high-powered events and individuals and neglect the emotional context. As Williams notes in her introduction, the entire story of American slavery is one of emotion - of love and loneliness, despair and grief, hope, joy, anger, resentment, determination. This book doesn't neglect the other side of the tale - the deliberate decisions of white slaveowners to sell their slaves, to break up families, to ignore the powerful bonds of motherhood and kinship. Some acknowledged the emotions of their slaves and were stricken with guilt and shame, yet still their own financial or familial priorities took precedence. Others were utterly unconcerned, incapable of recognising any common humanity in the slaves and convinced that slaves could not feel as deeply as white men and women. Exploring emotions, as Williams acknowledges, is always a perilous task, particularly the emotions of a people who learned through a great many years of brutality and violence to shield their thoughts and feelings, to mask their pain, to play a role to ensure their own survival. Add in the difficulty of retrieving these individuals from the historical record - for every letter or memoir or interview there must be hundreds and thousands of men, women and children who have been lost to history - and the very concept of this book becomes daunting. But something like this needed to be written, and I could only wish it had been longer, that there was more to learn about these people. To read about a mother's search for her children and never to know the outcome, a husband's hunt for his wife long lost to him forever unknown - it's heartbreaking reading. You hope and pray for a joyful ending for these people, as they must have hoped and prayed themselves, but knowing too that hope is often the cruellest emotion.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Suzanne Moore

    These letters and ads placed in post Civil War newspapers and church bulletins show how loyalty and love can last a lifetime. I can only imagine how hopeless it must have felt to not remember or know enough facts needed to trace family members after years of separation. Mothers looking for children,taken from them when they were very young, live for the possibility that somehow they would be reunited one day. I learned that slaves were often considered as dispensable property and were thought of These letters and ads placed in post Civil War newspapers and church bulletins show how loyalty and love can last a lifetime. I can only imagine how hopeless it must have felt to not remember or know enough facts needed to trace family members after years of separation. Mothers looking for children,taken from them when they were very young, live for the possibility that somehow they would be reunited one day. I learned that slaves were often considered as dispensable property and were thought of as "currency" for debts or valuable trade when speculating land deals. It was heart-wrenching to think of the humiliation and suffering endured by men, women, and children as they were examined like livestock on the auction block. Pregnant women were a 'real bargain' ... sort of like buy one and get one free. I recall a poignant song Many Thousands Gone, by Bob Dylan that reflects saying goodbye to the past with relief, yet mourns a loss that cannot be regained. So many people displaced and families broken. Slaves who wanted to marry were also oppressed by an owner's (so-called) rights. Vows included different wording from traditional white weddings, since the bride and groom couldn't belong wholly to each other when they were considered as property. Permission to wed had to be granted by slave masters and when capital was needed to finance a purchase, or slaves' relationships with each other got in the way of an owners plans, a sale or trade trumped the sanctity of marriage.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Margaret

    I enjoyed this book and learned quite a bit about the lives of slaves and the impact of having loved ones being ripped from each other. The aftermath of the Civil War also brought about a search for these loved ones and the difficulties once these people were reunited. At times I did become a bit bored and wished for more, not sure what I would have liked but my interest waned and it took me forever to finish it. I also question the letters that were presented in this book. Letters that owners wo I enjoyed this book and learned quite a bit about the lives of slaves and the impact of having loved ones being ripped from each other. The aftermath of the Civil War also brought about a search for these loved ones and the difficulties once these people were reunited. At times I did become a bit bored and wished for more, not sure what I would have liked but my interest waned and it took me forever to finish it. I also question the letters that were presented in this book. Letters that owners would write for their slaves to their loved ones living on another plantation. Perhaps house slaves were able to convince their owners to write these letters but in general I would think that owners could care less or feel threatened by their slaves concentrating on contacting family members that they, the owners who were probably responsible for separating them in the first place. The elaborate writing and the words chosen in the letters were far beyond what I would think that an uneducated slave would be able to conceive. I am thinking that the owners chose the words and then wrote the letters but even then I would think that they wouldn't want to take the time and effort to write these letters. For the most part aside from my questioning the letters, the book is very important in learning about an atrocious part of American history.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Nancy

    When the Civil War ended and slavery was abolished, thousands were separated from families. The search to find family was especially difficult for former slaves. Masters frequently sold off children, a parent etc. and only the slave trader's name was known as attempts were made to track family members down. Williams does amazing research through church bulletins, journals, letters etc. in sharing stories of families separated and sometimes reunited. It was an unusual glimpse into a world I had n When the Civil War ended and slavery was abolished, thousands were separated from families. The search to find family was especially difficult for former slaves. Masters frequently sold off children, a parent etc. and only the slave trader's name was known as attempts were made to track family members down. Williams does amazing research through church bulletins, journals, letters etc. in sharing stories of families separated and sometimes reunited. It was an unusual glimpse into a world I had never considered prior to this. I'm grateful to this new insight and sensitivity to what a huge disruption slavery was to black families then and patterns established that are battled to this day.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Sasha

    Of all the books Ive read on Black History, this one upset me the most. Reading about families being torn apart by other humans, particularly mothers and children, brought me to tears more than once. The complicated stories, the often impossible reunifications, and the ways these things still affect generations today is a beginning to understanding the work that has to be done to end racism. It’s a very difficult read, but an extremely important one. Recommend it? No. You can’t recommend a book Of all the books Ive read on Black History, this one upset me the most. Reading about families being torn apart by other humans, particularly mothers and children, brought me to tears more than once. The complicated stories, the often impossible reunifications, and the ways these things still affect generations today is a beginning to understanding the work that has to be done to end racism. It’s a very difficult read, but an extremely important one. Recommend it? No. You can’t recommend a book with this kind of subject matter. I CHALLENGE you to read it and beg you to rethink everything you thought you knew about where white privilege began.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Andrew Pierce

    I had the pleasure of having Dr. Williams for an undergraduate seminar at UNC. She is not only brilliant, but she is an excellent and caring teacher, who pushed her students to excel. I had the pleasure of reading a manuscript of this book before it was published, and I finally got around to reading the whole thing. It is impeccably written, emotionally touching, and well worth your time.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Laura

    Compelling writing and meticulous research on a powerful and deeply moving subject. There are stories from this book that are permanently seared into my mind. If more young people had access to history books like this instead of dry textbooks, fewer of them would think they didn't like the subject.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Afshan

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. Tragic, but enlightening read about the lack of resources or possibilities those captured in slavery had of reconnecting with their families. Heartbreaking to see how it impacted children and fragmented families.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Krystal

    A little dry and repetitive at times but interesting. It is frustrating that there is so little information out there but Williams does a good job of extrapolating themes with limited evidence.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Carolyn Porter

    An enlightening and important book that analyzes the years-long search for family by former slaves after the Civil War.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Porter Broyles

    Very good book that talks about how slavery broke up families/relationships and how they attempted to reunite after the war.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Audra Costello

    This was a dense but fascinating read. It has more of a scholarly style so it took me longer to finish than other books. There was a lot to think about.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Jocelyn

    A bit repetitive in her text, but a really interesting subject. Would have been interesting to see more examples in depth, rather than the few in glance.

  21. 4 out of 5

    KappaBooks

    A heartbreaking yet fascinating part of social history that is often over looked, this was phenomenally written and easy to follow. (4.5/5 stars)

  22. 4 out of 5

    Allyson

    Growing up as a white person in the South, I really thought I understood the evil that was American slavery of African people. In reading this book, I realize that I was missing a lot. Reading the accounts of enslaved people as they recalled separations from parents, children, spouses, and friends gave me a much deeper understanding of what I thought I knew. I don't know which was worse for me to read, the accounts of the mothers screaming as they tried to follow their sold children, or the diar Growing up as a white person in the South, I really thought I understood the evil that was American slavery of African people. In reading this book, I realize that I was missing a lot. Reading the accounts of enslaved people as they recalled separations from parents, children, spouses, and friends gave me a much deeper understanding of what I thought I knew. I don't know which was worse for me to read, the accounts of the mothers screaming as they tried to follow their sold children, or the diary entries and letters of white slave owners minimizing the emotional pain and suffering of these enslaved people in their own minds, as if to nullify their guilt. This issue, how white people enslaved black people and tried to pretend it was ok, is a legacy that is still with us today every time we hear about a police shooting in which we search for guilt in the victim's story. In the epilogue, author Heather Andrea Williams tells how family members continued to talk about the separations long after, even decades after they occurred, pointing out how the inherent pain was tied up in love of the lost individuals. This book should be required reading for all Americans. I wish it was on the high school reading lists next to Dickens and Fitzgerald.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Angela Gibson

    I thought that I understood the evil of slavery. Nothing brought it into focus as clearly as Help Me to Find My People. One of the US justification's for slavery is that it had existed in Rome and Egypt. Any person who ever attempts to rationalize that slavery was good for the slaves involved should be forced to read this book in one sitting. My interest in this book was two fold. I thought it would give me a peek into methods for genealogy for African Americans and it was recommended through my I thought that I understood the evil of slavery. Nothing brought it into focus as clearly as Help Me to Find My People. One of the US justification's for slavery is that it had existed in Rome and Egypt. Any person who ever attempts to rationalize that slavery was good for the slaves involved should be forced to read this book in one sitting. My interest in this book was two fold. I thought it would give me a peek into methods for genealogy for African Americans and it was recommended through my library as part of Black History Month. Now I'm ashamed that I approached this book so lightly. The records of slavery that existed in newspapers, private journals, and letters written to separated slaves by white slaveowners should be as much a part of US history lessons as any treatise on World War II, the Declaration of Independence, women's suffrage, etc. This book is a critical lesson into the human impact on these people who were stripped of their home countries and families and brought to the United States to serve as properties of labor and breeding for the enrichment of the slave holder. Read this book. That is all.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Emily

    The letters and advertisements that were placed in newspapers in the aftermath of the Civil War are powerfully moving and heartbreaking. It is sad to think of the large numbers of freed African Americans who never located their family members. This is a great topic and is well-researched, but I found the author's opinions to be a bit repetitive. She made the same points over and over. Mostly I wanted to read more of the bulletins placed by the former slaves and less about the author's interpreta The letters and advertisements that were placed in newspapers in the aftermath of the Civil War are powerfully moving and heartbreaking. It is sad to think of the large numbers of freed African Americans who never located their family members. This is a great topic and is well-researched, but I found the author's opinions to be a bit repetitive. She made the same points over and over. Mostly I wanted to read more of the bulletins placed by the former slaves and less about the author's interpretation of their feelings. Their own words speak volumes. I also got a thrill of recognition several times while reading this book- there are many references to Richmond, VA, especially to Lumpkin's jail, which is very near to where I live, and a few references to the area I grew up in- Halifax, VA, as well as the surrounding areas. Definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in the time period; it's well worth your time.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Robert

    What an incredibly moving book. 'Help Me to Find My People' examines the horrors of American slavery through the specific topic of the forced separation of families. The book is rife with vivid primary sources and testimonies of former slaves who had been torn asunder from their loved ones. The later chapters focus on post-war reunion efforts, specifically through newspaper advertisements seeking information regarding long-lost relations. There's also some interesting analysis of how white maste What an incredibly moving book. 'Help Me to Find My People' examines the horrors of American slavery through the specific topic of the forced separation of families. The book is rife with vivid primary sources and testimonies of former slaves who had been torn asunder from their loved ones. The later chapters focus on post-war reunion efforts, specifically through newspaper advertisements seeking information regarding long-lost relations. There's also some interesting analysis of how white masters perceived slave relationships and why they were rarely hesitant to destroy them. Slavery and racism will forever be the dark, indelible scar on America's face. Reading a book like this only further drives that important lesson home.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Dags

    Excellent study from UNC Chapel Hill's Assistant Professor of History, about the effects of slavery on the division of families and attempts by former slaves to reunite after freedom: after flight to Canada during slavery, after emancipation during the war, and after the Civil War ended. Her conclusion are backed up by research documented in the extensive endnotes, organized by chapters. She even discovered a few instances of attempts to reunify or seek information about lost family members duri Excellent study from UNC Chapel Hill's Assistant Professor of History, about the effects of slavery on the division of families and attempts by former slaves to reunite after freedom: after flight to Canada during slavery, after emancipation during the war, and after the Civil War ended. Her conclusion are backed up by research documented in the extensive endnotes, organized by chapters. She even discovered a few instances of attempts to reunify or seek information about lost family members during slavery and attempts to influence sales. As examples, the author includes photocopies of some of the letters people wrote and newspaper advertisements people placed seeking information to reconnect with lost family members to be read aloud in churches.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Tim

    An incredibly thoughtful exploration of slavery and the torments it brought to its victims. Williams explains how slaves could have their families torn asunder in the most heart-breaking terms. She follows the adverts they placed in local papers pleading for news of their parents, spouses, siblings and children. The breakdown of the South towards the end of the Civil War meant that many slaves were sold and resold - and those connections could not be re-established after emancipation. Williams w An incredibly thoughtful exploration of slavery and the torments it brought to its victims. Williams explains how slaves could have their families torn asunder in the most heart-breaking terms. She follows the adverts they placed in local papers pleading for news of their parents, spouses, siblings and children. The breakdown of the South towards the end of the Civil War meant that many slaves were sold and resold - and those connections could not be re-established after emancipation. Williams works hard to share individual stories to illustrate a larger narrative both before and after slavery ended in the US. I am so glad I read this book, and recommend it to history buffs and politcos.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Susan

    I would recommend this book to anyone who would like to learn more about members of enslaved families separated most often through the sale at the auction block. Heartbreaking stories of husbands separated from wives, young children separated from parents and siblings--never to see or hear anything about each other again. Dr. Williams, formerly at UNC Chapel Hill, uses primary sources, including slave narratives and newspaper advertisements to document the stories of family separations and ultim I would recommend this book to anyone who would like to learn more about members of enslaved families separated most often through the sale at the auction block. Heartbreaking stories of husbands separated from wives, young children separated from parents and siblings--never to see or hear anything about each other again. Dr. Williams, formerly at UNC Chapel Hill, uses primary sources, including slave narratives and newspaper advertisements to document the stories of family separations and ultimately, the search for relatives after the Civil War.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Julie Hulten

    An absolute "5" for subject matter and in-depth "reporting". I had often envisioned the torment of these kinds of separations, Williams has done painstaking research and it reveals the heartbreak and the hard-heartedness of separating families for financial consideration. I thought that Williams sometimes over-explained, the situations really spoke for themselves. I also found her commentary repetitious. An important work.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Joyce

    This book is now in my permanent Top 5 for nonfiction. Beautifully written; heartbreaking; a paean to the human spirit; amazingly researched. Answered questions that have always been in the back of my mind, as well as other questions that I never knew to formulate. Highly recommended.

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