Reviews for Necessary Trouble

by Drew Gilpin Faust

Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

A distinguished historian remembers coming-of-age in the 1950s and ’60s. Faust, a Bancroft and Francis Parkman Prize winner and former president of Harvard, examines her personal history in a memoir set between her 1947 birth and her 1968 graduation from Bryn Mawr. In the early chapters, the author resurrects the Virginia of her White, privileged childhood, touching on her father’s racehorse business and emotional coldness; her mother’s desire that she grow up a meek and passive “lady” (“I was not meant to become a woman, for that category carried dangerously sexual and sensual implications”); her brother’s backyard Civil War reenactments (he made her play Grant to his Lee); the family’s unspoken belief that they deserved every advantage they had; and their staff of Black cleaners and cooks who used the back door and ate in the kitchen. In the rest of the book, Faust chronicles her flight from the racial and gendered assumptions of her upbringing. She wrote to President Dwight Eisenhower in favor of desegregation, skipped midterms to participate in civil rights protests, endured an assault by a National Guard member in Alabama, rallied against the war in Vietnam, and organized her college classmates against sexist double standards. The author is at her best when she immerses readers in a young person’s experience of the era’s moral urgency and passion, illuminating how “coming of age as a thinking and feeling person in those years [was] like walking on the edge of a precipice.” It was an era whose specific clashes “fewer and fewer living humans can remember” and whose “strangeness…can perhaps encourage us that at least some things have changed for the better in my lifetime.” And yet, writes Faust, “when we see many of those advances challenged or even overturned, it can remind us why we don’t want to live in such a world again.” An inviting, absorbing look at a privileged childhood in the segregated South and the birth of a questioning spirit. Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Publishers Weekly
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Former Harvard president Faust (This Republic of Suffering) nimbly blends the personal and the political in this affecting memoir that covers her life from 1947 (the year she was born) through 1968. Faust, who was raised in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, had difficult relationships with both of her parents: her WWII veteran father was perpetually disengaged, and her upper-class mother was often angry. Disenchanted with their conservative worldviews, Faust forged her own, shaped by the literature of the era, including To Kill a Mockingbird and The Diary of Anne Frank. Her outrage at racist discrimination led a nine-year-old Faust to write to then President Eisenhower to share her feelings that a segregated society was an unjust one (the memoir opens with a photocopy of this letter). Faust furthered her focus on “notions of justice, equality and patriotism” at Bryn Mawr College as a student activist and protester against Jim Crow and the Vietnam War. Her epilogue closes on a note of hope, looking ahead to the moment in 2008 when her home state of Virginia “cast its electoral ballots for the first Black president.” Faust pulls off a brilliant synthesis, grounding the macro stresses of the period in her quest to distance herself from her culture of origin and sharpen her political sensibilities. A follow-up volume exploring her life after 1968 would be more than welcome. (Aug.)

Book list
From Booklist, Copyright © American Library Association. Used with permission.

The first memoir by Faust (This Republic of Suffering, 2008), a formidable historian and former Harvard president, is an origin story that traces her evolution from the child of a privileged Virginia family into an outraged young adult activist and protester and then into a respected scholar of slavery and the American Civil War. Her realization at the age of nine that segregation legally forbade Black children from attending her school inspired her to write a letter to President Eisenhower asking him to “please try and have schools and other things accept colored people.” Faust’s growing political consciousness created tension at home, especially with her conservative mother. It was only by leaving Virginia—first to an East Coast boarding school, and then to Bryn Mawr College—that she found the confidence and freedom to put her body on the line in the growing civil rights movement. An inspiring and timely testament to the power of education and the necessity of allyship from an important and influential scholar.