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What We Inherit: A Secret War and a Family's Search for Answers

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In the wake of her mother’s death, Jessica Pearce Rotondi uncovers boxes of letters, declassified CIA reports, and newspaper clippings that bring to light a family ghost: her uncle Jack, who disappeared during the CIA-led Secret War in Laos in 1972. The letters lead her across Southeast Asia in search of the truth that has eluded her family for decades. In 1943, 19-year-old In the wake of her mother’s death, Jessica Pearce Rotondi uncovers boxes of letters, declassified CIA reports, and newspaper clippings that bring to light a family ghost: her uncle Jack, who disappeared during the CIA-led Secret War in Laos in 1972. The letters lead her across Southeast Asia in search of the truth that has eluded her family for decades. In 1943, 19-year-old Edwin Pearce jumps from a burning B-17 bomber over Germany. Missing in action for months, his parents finally learn he is a prisoner of war in Stalag 17. Ed survives nearly three years in prison camp and a march across the Alps before returning home. Ed’s eldest son and namesake, Edwin “Jack,” follows his father into the Air Force. But on the night of March 29, 1972, Jack’s plane vanishes over the mountains bordering Vietnam and Ed’s past comes roaring into the present. "What We Inherit" is Rotondi’s story of her own hunt for answers as she retraces her grandfather’s 1973 path across Southeast Asia in search of his son. An excavation of inherited trauma on a personal and national scale, "What We Inherit" reveals the power of a father’s refusal to be silenced and a daughter’s quest to rediscover her voice in the wake of loss. As Rotondi nears the last known place Jack was seen alive, she grows closer to understanding the mystery that has haunted her family for generations—and the destructive impact of a family secret so big it encompassed an entire war. Praise for "What We Inherit": "Jessica Pearce Rotondi brilliantly probes the mysteries of a secret war while simultaneously exploring the secrets of her own family, to give us a book about coming to terms with many kinds of loss. Exceptional." —Salman Rushdie, Booker Prize-winning author of "Midnight's Children" “A beautiful amalgam of memoir, travelogue, and investigative report that moves with the propulsive forward energy of a thriller. A haunting chronicle of loss and redemption." —Ron Chernow, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Alexander Hamilton" “'What We Inherit' is a strikingly original debut, a moving saga of love and grief that shows how world events reshaped three generations of one American family. Jessica Pearce Rotondi discovers that courage exists not only on battlefields, but even in the most ordinary kitchens.” —Kate Bolick, bestselling author of "Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own" “Written like a spy novel and delivered like a whistleblower’s account of government deception, I felt like I was holding my breath until the very last page... This book shook my deepest assumptions about America." —Sebastian Junger, award-winning author of "The Perfect Storm" "An inspiring and revealing story of one family’s pursuit of the truth about their son." -Kirkus Reviews, STARRED REVIEW "'What We Inherit' is a powerful book about how we make sense of unfathomable loss—and about the realization that all loss is unfathomable. In our current world, with so much war and pain, this is the book we need." —Eva Hagberg, author of "How to Be Loved: A Memoir of Life-Saving Friendship" “A triumph of investigative family history. A skillful and lyrical retelling of a mystery discovered largely upon her mother's death, this book is a reminder of how the suffering that remains after war can haunt us for generations.”
 —Joel Whitney, author of "Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers" and a founder of Guernica "I devoured this book in one breathless gulp. A seamless blend of love, loss and legacy, this utterly gripping account of one woman's search to uncover a family mystery in the wake of her mother's death is at once heartbreaking and gorgeously hopeful. This is exactly the kind of compulsively-readable memoir I'm always hoping to find, but so rarely do." —Claire Bidwell Smith, author of "The Rules of Inheritance" "In her powerful, heartbreaking, and gut-wrenching first book, Rotondi explains how in 2009, after her mother's death, she found boxes of files, newspaper clippings, and declassified CIA reports regarding her Uncle Jack and the family's search for him." —Booklist


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In the wake of her mother’s death, Jessica Pearce Rotondi uncovers boxes of letters, declassified CIA reports, and newspaper clippings that bring to light a family ghost: her uncle Jack, who disappeared during the CIA-led Secret War in Laos in 1972. The letters lead her across Southeast Asia in search of the truth that has eluded her family for decades. In 1943, 19-year-old In the wake of her mother’s death, Jessica Pearce Rotondi uncovers boxes of letters, declassified CIA reports, and newspaper clippings that bring to light a family ghost: her uncle Jack, who disappeared during the CIA-led Secret War in Laos in 1972. The letters lead her across Southeast Asia in search of the truth that has eluded her family for decades. In 1943, 19-year-old Edwin Pearce jumps from a burning B-17 bomber over Germany. Missing in action for months, his parents finally learn he is a prisoner of war in Stalag 17. Ed survives nearly three years in prison camp and a march across the Alps before returning home. Ed’s eldest son and namesake, Edwin “Jack,” follows his father into the Air Force. But on the night of March 29, 1972, Jack’s plane vanishes over the mountains bordering Vietnam and Ed’s past comes roaring into the present. "What We Inherit" is Rotondi’s story of her own hunt for answers as she retraces her grandfather’s 1973 path across Southeast Asia in search of his son. An excavation of inherited trauma on a personal and national scale, "What We Inherit" reveals the power of a father’s refusal to be silenced and a daughter’s quest to rediscover her voice in the wake of loss. As Rotondi nears the last known place Jack was seen alive, she grows closer to understanding the mystery that has haunted her family for generations—and the destructive impact of a family secret so big it encompassed an entire war. Praise for "What We Inherit": "Jessica Pearce Rotondi brilliantly probes the mysteries of a secret war while simultaneously exploring the secrets of her own family, to give us a book about coming to terms with many kinds of loss. Exceptional." —Salman Rushdie, Booker Prize-winning author of "Midnight's Children" “A beautiful amalgam of memoir, travelogue, and investigative report that moves with the propulsive forward energy of a thriller. A haunting chronicle of loss and redemption." —Ron Chernow, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Alexander Hamilton" “'What We Inherit' is a strikingly original debut, a moving saga of love and grief that shows how world events reshaped three generations of one American family. Jessica Pearce Rotondi discovers that courage exists not only on battlefields, but even in the most ordinary kitchens.” —Kate Bolick, bestselling author of "Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own" “Written like a spy novel and delivered like a whistleblower’s account of government deception, I felt like I was holding my breath until the very last page... This book shook my deepest assumptions about America." —Sebastian Junger, award-winning author of "The Perfect Storm" "An inspiring and revealing story of one family’s pursuit of the truth about their son." -Kirkus Reviews, STARRED REVIEW "'What We Inherit' is a powerful book about how we make sense of unfathomable loss—and about the realization that all loss is unfathomable. In our current world, with so much war and pain, this is the book we need." —Eva Hagberg, author of "How to Be Loved: A Memoir of Life-Saving Friendship" “A triumph of investigative family history. A skillful and lyrical retelling of a mystery discovered largely upon her mother's death, this book is a reminder of how the suffering that remains after war can haunt us for generations.”
 —Joel Whitney, author of "Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers" and a founder of Guernica "I devoured this book in one breathless gulp. A seamless blend of love, loss and legacy, this utterly gripping account of one woman's search to uncover a family mystery in the wake of her mother's death is at once heartbreaking and gorgeously hopeful. This is exactly the kind of compulsively-readable memoir I'm always hoping to find, but so rarely do." —Claire Bidwell Smith, author of "The Rules of Inheritance" "In her powerful, heartbreaking, and gut-wrenching first book, Rotondi explains how in 2009, after her mother's death, she found boxes of files, newspaper clippings, and declassified CIA reports regarding her Uncle Jack and the family's search for him." —Booklist

30 review for What We Inherit: A Secret War and a Family's Search for Answers

  1. 4 out of 5

    Eryn Eaton

    I don’t often read a book in one day, but What We Inherit grabbed me from the first sentence and I couldn’t put it down until I was down. It’s beautifully written, powerful, heart wrenching and poignant. Highly recommend.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Pari

    A non-fiction that reads like a page-turning fiction. Impressively researched and captivating. Strongly recommend.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Javanika Mody

    A must read

  4. 4 out of 5

    Kristin Shaver

    I just finished reading “What We Inherit.” I read it in less than a day. The writing was beautiful, energetic and enthralling. The writer made me feel and made me think: what do we know about about the world when only seen from the vantage point of our own country? How well do we truly know our family members? Do we ever see a complete picture of our loved ones and does it even matter? This was a book about truth; patriotism; family and friendships that transcend family. I highly recommend it.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Zachary

    An outstanding read!

  6. 5 out of 5

    Beachpig

    A truly awakening read of a woman learning some of the most important history of her family after they are gone. Rotondi takes the reader along on her exploratory journey through her family's history in an attempt to piece together what happened to her uncle Jake, who went MIA after being shot down over Laos. The care with which she details what she knows and what she learns makes you feel like you are along side each family member. Whether it be parachuting out of a shot down B-17 in World War A truly awakening read of a woman learning some of the most important history of her family after they are gone. Rotondi takes the reader along on her exploratory journey through her family's history in an attempt to piece together what happened to her uncle Jake, who went MIA after being shot down over Laos. The care with which she details what she knows and what she learns makes you feel like you are along side each family member. Whether it be parachuting out of a shot down B-17 in World War II with her Grandpa, to standing up to ambassadors in France with her mom, to being in the base cantina with her uncle Jake before a mission, and finally, being with her as she finds her peace, her writing has you there by each of their sides. Thankful she felt called to go on this exploration and then share it with all of us.

  7. 4 out of 5

    MARK KEATING

    Read this book in quarantine as patriotic summer holidays approach. What could be more fitting than a true story about a heroic father and mother who devoted their lives to keep the home lights burning for a lost son? To this story, the author brings the closure that her mother and the rest of the family sought so faithfully. The book spans continents, wars, and social upheaval but finally turns back to the supreme importance of the love within a family. Complaints abound that for the last few mo Read this book in quarantine as patriotic summer holidays approach. What could be more fitting than a true story about a heroic father and mother who devoted their lives to keep the home lights burning for a lost son? To this story, the author brings the closure that her mother and the rest of the family sought so faithfully. The book spans continents, wars, and social upheaval but finally turns back to the supreme importance of the love within a family. Complaints abound that for the last few months we can't get haircuts, there are lines in stores, or the favorite restaurant is closed. Before a reader starts to feel too depressed by this horror, the message of the book resounds: Generations of Americans have fought and died for their country. Generations have sought the Truth despite hardships we can't imagine. Generations have given their children the support to think and live in freedom and to respect their legacy. It's happening even now. How does the United States foster so many brave families? I'm not sure, but Jessica Pearce Rotondi has shown that the "bravery gene" was indeed passed down from a father to his children and grandchildren. Families like the author's will always lead us.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Jackie Hennessey

    Jessica Pearce Rotondi’s debut is magnificent. I was stunned by the story and the way she tells it and had to remind myself that this is not fiction. Pearce Rotondi does more than share her family’s heart-wrenching story of legacy, loss and the uncovering of war-time truths. She weaves a thoughtful memoir into a tapestry of historical accounts and manages to capture your heart from the very first page. What We Inherit is a more than a must-read. It’s a masterpiece.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Laura Linart

    Jess Rotondi is a dear friend and I am delighted to have had the opportunity to read this book hot off the presses! What We Inherit follows Jess, a young woman grieving the loss of her mother, from Boston to Laos in an effort to find closure for herself and her family. After her mother's death, Jess discovers that years before her birth, her mother and grandparents had engaged in a decades-long search to find a son that went missing in Laos during the Vietnam War. Much of that war was and remain Jess Rotondi is a dear friend and I am delighted to have had the opportunity to read this book hot off the presses! What We Inherit follows Jess, a young woman grieving the loss of her mother, from Boston to Laos in an effort to find closure for herself and her family. After her mother's death, Jess discovers that years before her birth, her mother and grandparents had engaged in a decades-long search to find a son that went missing in Laos during the Vietnam War. Much of that war was and remains murky to many Americans, but the Pearce family finds themselves entangled in its dark heart—coming up against secrets our government doesn't want them, or anyone, to know as they search for their lost son. Jess's background as an editor for Huffington Post is evident as the book trips along in brief chapters that left me wondering what comes next. This is an author who knows how to hold a reader's attention in the internet age. Part memoir, part a richly-researched work of journalism, the flowery language Jess employs to describe her experience as a young woman in a far-off foreign country for the first time juxtaposes nicely with the robust and muscled prose that speeds the plot. This book is a perfect book club pick because it will give readers the opportunity to discuss grief, family secrets, the impact of warfare, the power of faith, and the pleasures of travel. That's a lot of fuel for a fascinating conversation!

  10. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth D

    What We Inherit is an exquisite story that traverses a grieving daughter's loss, a family's hidden saga, and the landscape of a country's secret war. Jessica Pearce Rotondi -- my dear friend and personal role model -- recounts how, in the days after losing her mother to cancer, she uncovers her family's decades-long search for an uncle who went MIA in Laos in 1972. The discovery sends her searching for answers, and the journey is one of personal and historical reckoning. Told with poignancy and What We Inherit is an exquisite story that traverses a grieving daughter's loss, a family's hidden saga, and the landscape of a country's secret war. Jessica Pearce Rotondi -- my dear friend and personal role model -- recounts how, in the days after losing her mother to cancer, she uncovers her family's decades-long search for an uncle who went MIA in Laos in 1972. The discovery sends her searching for answers, and the journey is one of personal and historical reckoning. Told with poignancy and grace, this story will resonate for anyone who has lost a loved one and been left with unanswered questions. 

  11. 4 out of 5

    Sharon Siegel

    I loved everything about this book - the story itself is just heartbreaking but at the same time uplifting in the strength shown by the author and by the family of American heroes. Yes, there are many in this book, in many different ways - including the author herself. It's hard to believe this is nonfiction and that these situations actually happen to a family, but I know every part of it is true and so beautifully written. Gripping, heartwarming, intriguing, and this will keep you engrossed fr I loved everything about this book - the story itself is just heartbreaking but at the same time uplifting in the strength shown by the author and by the family of American heroes. Yes, there are many in this book, in many different ways - including the author herself. It's hard to believe this is nonfiction and that these situations actually happen to a family, but I know every part of it is true and so beautifully written. Gripping, heartwarming, intriguing, and this will keep you engrossed from the first word through the last. Definitely recommended! It's an amazing story and told perfectly!

  12. 5 out of 5

    Sharon Emery

    Until now, I never started reading a book in the morning and finished it in the same day. I couldn’t put down What We Inherit until I eagerly- and tearfully- read the last page. Three generations of Pearces, traveling through decades, try to find the answer to the question, “Where’s Jack?” Rotondi bravely sets out to find the answer. But What We Inherit is more than even that. The layers of loss crystallize, and the tireless determination inspires. This true story of one family's journey reaches Until now, I never started reading a book in the morning and finished it in the same day. I couldn’t put down What We Inherit until I eagerly- and tearfully- read the last page. Three generations of Pearces, traveling through decades, try to find the answer to the question, “Where’s Jack?” Rotondi bravely sets out to find the answer. But What We Inherit is more than even that. The layers of loss crystallize, and the tireless determination inspires. This true story of one family's journey reaches out to all of us. This is about being human in a very imperfect world- about courage and about love.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Chrissie

    Would Give it a 3.8 - I enjoyed it but wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. Having been to Laos and read up on the US involvement there I was so sad to learn through this book of how the government handled those troops who were MIAs and POWs there. The authors family’s journey and the author’s own journey to come to grips with the loss of a family member while serving the US is the story told in this book and is an important one.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Michelle Autuori

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. Great debut! Heart wrenching story about a family looking for their son after his plane was shot down during war and the affects through several generations. Really enjoyed this and loved the last line in the book, “What neither of us perhaps realized was that we can’t relive things for the people we love; all we can do is try to understand them, love them, and know when to let them go.”

  15. 5 out of 5

    Keith Haley

    Truly an amazing book of courage, love and devotion. A testimony to the power of faith in this family’s quest for answers and closure. It transcends generations, unbreakable and moving.. A must read for anyone interested in the USA’s commitment to Southeast Asia.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer Hills

    This book is a beautifully written account of a truly thrilling story. It is a page-turner that combines a family mystery, travelogue, and a coming of age story. I loved it right through the last page.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Maribeth R Sexton

    Interesting Story Loved the story and all the characters, very heartfelt. Writing was a bit rambling at times with a lot of technical detail.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Crystal

    Rotondi's story definitely inspires readers to dig through their own family military history!

  19. 5 out of 5

    Hector

    An excellent true story of the author's family--how her uncle went missing in action in Vietnam, how her grandparents sought answers and support from the government, how her mother continued to fight for his release (if he was still alive), and finally how the author took up her family's cause when her mother passed away. It illuminates the plight of POWs and their families, and is wonderfully written to boot.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Nancy Star

  21. 4 out of 5

    Katie

  22. 4 out of 5

    Magdalena

  23. 5 out of 5

    Bonnie

  24. 5 out of 5

    Laura

  25. 5 out of 5

    Janet

  26. 5 out of 5

    Pamela

  27. 4 out of 5

    NENA VANESSA ESPINOSA

  28. 4 out of 5

    Julian Tepper

  29. 5 out of 5

    Lauren

  30. 5 out of 5

    Sheryl Powers

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