By Chris Tomlinson
Published in 2014 by Thomas Dunne Books.
Reviewed by Elizabeth A. Schultz
Several years ago, one of my husband’s colleagues told us that his Southern ancestors had owned slaves. A recent transplant from the North, I’d never heard anyone say that before, and wondered what it would be like to know that particular fact about one’s family. In Tomlinson Hill, Chris Tomlinson grapples with the question, examining American racial history through the prism of two families – one black, one white – families with a common name and past.
Chris Tomlinson is a white Texas native who spent eleven years covering events in Africa and the Middle East for The Associated Press. His father’s family hails from Marlin in Falls County where, before emancipation, their slaves worked their cotton plantations in an area known as Tomlinson Hill. After the Civil War, a number of the newly freed slaves took the Tomlinson surname. Through successive generations, many Tomlinsons – both black and white – stayed in the area, and members of both families maintained an attachment to Tomlinson Hill.
Tomlinson’s interest started as a personal quest. As a boy, he had “grasped for evidence of Texan aristocracy” in his family tree. But as a man who’d reported on the overthrow of apartheid in South Africa and ethnic genocide in Rwanda and Congo, he wanted to know the truth of his slave-owning family – who they’d been and what they’d done, “no matter how ugly.” His experiences as a reporter had convinced him that in racially troubled America, as in the countries he’d covered, truth is a necessary precondition to reconciliation.
Letters and scrapbooks provided Tomlinson with an entrée into his own family. Access to the African-American Tomlinsons was facilitated by the discovery that the star football player LaDainian Tomlinson was a descendent of the Tomlinson slaves. LaDainian Tomlinson spent his early childhood on Tomlinson Hill.
In researching the two families, Tomlinson delved into official records and newspaper accounts as well as personal archives. While a written record of the first African-American Tomlinsons was virtually non-existent, the author was able to draw on personal narratives recorded and preserved by the Depression-era Federal Writers’ Project. Indeed, much of the strength of Tomlinson Hill derives from oral accounts provided by members of both families in what must have totaled hundreds of hours of interviews.
Throughout, the author maintains a dispassionate point of view, something he doubtless learned as a journalist. Judgment he leaves to others. The approach serves him well. What’s more, he grounds personal events in both families in the broader economic, social and political context of their time — whether he’s detailing racial disparities in Marlin’s schools, the financial servitude of Tomlinson sharecroppers, or the not-so-subtle role of the Ku Klux Klan.
“I wanted my family to be above the fray,” Tomlinson writes of ancestors whose sons were invariably named after Robert E. Lee. “But I was finished with fantasies; I wanted to know the truth…” We’re told that it will set us free. In Tomlinson Hill, he has made an important contribution to the epic work of acknowledging and accepting our country’s racial history, and finding ways to move forward.
Elizabeth A. Schultz is the winner of the 2014 WLT Manuscript Competition in mainstream fiction. Following an early stint at The Writer magazine, she taught high school English and then worked for many years as an advertising copywriter. Though most of her adult life was spent in Boston, she now lives in Austin. “You Know What She Means,” her first published piece, appeared Bellevue Literary Review. She’s working on her first novel.