Ancestry & Cultural Transmission in Ship Fever

We inherit a lot from our parents—our eye color, our hair type, our height, our bone structure. We may inherit predispositions to certain diseases, or a natural talent for mathematics or music. We also inherit other, more material things, too: family heirloom jewelry, life savings, mom’s old beat-up station wagon. And someday, when our parents are gone, we inherit from them a rich cultural legacy, an ancestry stretching back to the beginnings of time.

Andrea Barrett’s “The Behavior of the Hawkweeds,” a story in her exquisite collection Ship Fever, is remarkable for the manner in which it masterfully intertwines various levels of inheritance into the story. Like the double helix of DNA, Barrett braids several strands of narrative together, seamlessly weaving the narrator’s story with the historical account of scientist Gregor Mendel. The effect is subtle yet powerful, a story about love and memory that raises complex issues of genetic, historical, cultural, and pedagogic legacies.

Although we have largely focused on genetic transmission thus far in the course, I am interested in the notion of cultural transmission that Barrett’s story introduces. It may not be an observable characteristic like eye color or height, but ancestry forms a large part of who we are. Ancestry is our inheritance, our history; it’s a rich trove of memories and traditions and customs that we can carry with us, generation after generation.

Growing up, I remember hearing my mom tell the story of my immigrant great-grandparents. It was a familiar tale: a young and hopeful Norwegian couple journeys to the New World with dreams of a better life, barely enough money in their pockets to scrape together a decent meal. My Norwegian origins continue to resonate in my life today, in my family’s various customs and traditions (including the unappealing lutefisk— a traditional Norwegian dish consisting of salted cod-fish—that I begrudgingly swallow down every Christmas Eve).

In Barrett’s story, the importance of family legacy is so powerful as to drive the dissolution of Antonia’s marriage. Antonio’s great-grandfather, Tati, leaves her with one precious belonging upon his death: the draft of a letter that Gregor Mendel composed to the botanist Nageli. This letter—and the story that accompanies it—is Antonia’s ancestral inheritance, a unique treasure she can pass down to future generations. Antonio’s husband Richard, however, has appropriated the story as his own, “cherishing it like a jewel” (25) and using it to boast to students and colleagues. By exploiting Tati’s story to further his own interests, Richard is, in a sense, tarnishing the sanctity of Antonia’s unique familial inheritance.

Although Antonia quietly tolerates her husband’s behavior for years, she gets fed up one night while listening to Richard incorrectly recounting Tati’s story and interrupts him, providing the crucial detail that she has been omitting for years. It is a tense, emotionally-charged moment, and we sense that some irrevocable damage has been done to Antonia’s marriage. In this way, Barrett underscores the importance of family history and cultural transmission. Tati’s story is as much apart of Antonia’s identity as the color of her hair or her height. When Richard “steals” Tati’s story, then, it is almost as if he is “stealing” Antonia’s identity, and she rushes to reclaim it, jeopardizing her marriage in the process.

As much as I’d prefer to eat a succulent honey-baked ham in lieu of lutefisk on Christmas Eve, I wouldn’t trade my mother’s traditional Norwegian cooking for the world. Eating this food reminds me of who I am and where I came from, reconnecting me to my Norwegian ancestors who came to this country in search of a better life for their children and their children’s children.

—Anna D.

Advertisements

~ by ardickens on February 10, 2012.

3 Responses to “Ancestry & Cultural Transmission in Ship Fever”

  1. “It may not be an observable characteristic like eye color or height, but ancestry forms a large part of who we are. Ancestry is our inheritance, our history; it’s a rich trove of memories and traditions and customs that we can carry with us, generation after generation.”

    As I went through and read, this was idea that I latched onto hardest. The excerpt above is so powerful and makes seems a fundamental truth so immense, yet, for some reason, it resonated vacuously within me. Perhaps that’s why I chose to comment on this one, because if someone stopped me and asked who I was and what made me that way, or if I had to write a paper on my cultural identity, I would be stumped for answers.

    I’ve always been fascinated with it though – I remember quizzing my parents with my younger brother one day about the countries our ancestors came from and I proudly touted my 1/16th Irishness for years afterwards to anyone who would listen. I found out only three years ago that I’m distantly related to Aaron Burr and it rocked my world for about a week (for those who don’t know, he’s the one who famously dueled Alexander Hamilton and came out the winner; that’s right, I’m related to a badass / historically iconic jackass). It took until freshman year of high school that I figured out I was a second-generation German-American in a class activity. Whenever we visit my grandmother in her care facility, my favorite part is her cracking out the photo albums, looking at the large Polish woman I know to be great-grandmother (the image is all I have, as she can’t speak and my mom doesn’t remember).

    My point is that my knowledge of my ancestral background is incredibly sparse. I’m not sure it was important to either sets of grandparents either, or if it was, these “troves” weren’t passed down through my parents. Not that I blame them, and I’m not all too strung out about it either way: my mother raised me the best way she could given life’s circumstances. I’m sure I’m one of many. I just wonder whether someone would implicate me as less than human because I lack an important personal identifier in the same way clones are for the method of their creation.

    Cherish your ancestry. While it may seem simple, it really is something to be treasured.

  2. Shoot. I should sign that, but there’s no way to edit that in (or fix some mistakes, alas). Sorry to clutter up the page.

    – R

  3. “It may not be an observable characteristic like eye color or height, but ancestry forms a large part of who we are. Ancestry is our inheritance, our history; it’s a rich trove of memories and traditions and customs that we can carry with us, generation after generation.”

    As I went through and read, this was the idea that I latched onto hardest. The excerpt above is so powerful and makes what seems a fundamental truth so immense; yet, for some reason, it resonated vacuously within me. Perhaps that’s why I chose to comment on this entry – if someone were to stop me and ask who I was and what made me that way, or if I had to write a paper on my cultural identity, I would be stumped for answers.

    I’ve always been fascinated with it – I remember quizzing my parents with my younger brother one day about the countries our ancestors came from. I proudly touted my 1/16th Irishness for years afterwards to anyone who would listen. I found out only three years ago that I’m distantly related to Aaron Burr and it rocked my world for about a week (for those who don’t know, he’s the one who famously dueled and killed Alexander Hamilton; that’s right, I’m related to a badass / historically iconic jackass). It took until freshman year of high school for me to discover that I was a second-generation German-American during a class activity. Whenever we visit my grandmother in her care facility, my favorite part is her cracking open the photo albums, looking at the large Polish woman I know to be my great-grandmother.

    My point is that my knowledge of my ancestral background is incredibly sparse. I’m not sure how important it was to either sets of grandparents, but these “troves” weren’t passed down to me through my parents. Not that I blame them: my mother raised me the best way she could given life’s circumstances. I’m sure I’m one of many in the same situation. I just wonder whether someone would implicate me as less than human because I lack an important personal identifier in the same way clones are for the method of their conception.

    Cherish your ancestry. While it may seem simple, it really is something to be treasured.

    – R

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

 
%d bloggers like this: