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The Family Tree: A Lynching in Georgia, a Legacy of Secrets, and My Search for the Truth by Karen Branan

A journalist’s research uncovers her own family history and connections to a horrifying hate crime.

family tree

In researching her family history in the little town of Hamilton, Ga., investigative journalist Karen Branan was surprised to find connections to a 1912 lynching. A nephew of her great-grandfather, the sheriff, was murdered. Days later, a local mob killed three black men and a black woman. Branan digs deeper, expecting to find her forebears innocent of violence. The evidence is far more complex in The Family Tree: A Lynching in Georgia, a Legacy of Secrets, and My Search for the Truth.

In a town where nearly everyone has been related by blood or marriage for generations, Branan’s family variously turned a blind eye to the murders, or directly participated. She finds herself related not only to the white mob, but to at least one of the black victims as well. Every new piece of information complicates the story and startles her further, until she has to address her most basic understanding of the world. “I began this journey believing myself to be an unflinching investigative reporter and a nonracist,” Branan writes, but must confront a bias in favor of her own family. Admirably, she examines herself and the preconceptions she brings, even to the pursuit of racial justice.

The Family Tree offers an in-depth study of the history of Southern race relations, particularly in Georgia. The narrative of the lynching is told thrillingly, the background more dryly, but it is Branan’s personal perspective and soul-searching that makes this history insightful, relevant and memorable.


This review originally ran in the January 19, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 6 liaisons.

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