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The Mountain of Names A HISTORY OF THE HUMAN FAMILY by Alex Shoumatoff (Simon & Schuster: $17.95; 318 pp.)

October 20, 1985|Robert Dawidoff | Dawidoff teaches history at the Claremont Graduate School. and

Alex Shoumatoff has written a terrific book that gives contemporary issues of family a pre-history, a history, and all sorts of mediating contexts. The effect of his lively and idiosyncratic discussion is to make his subject seem more fascinating than plaguing, more human than personal. He makes family seem like something a rational person might want to think about.

While it seems that human beings naturally or habitually ( which is one of the subject's accompanying problems) live life in a context of kinship, just who your family is varies with your culture. A close family member in one society will turn out to be a complete stranger in another. The nature of kinship introduces a discussion of kinds of society inasmuch as kinship, like any other lasting human system, has a history rooted in function as well as in belief. Many of us understand too well the pain of being part of a family that has lost its function but not its habit of belief.

Shoumatoff's chapters discuss the urge for kinship, its cultural and social origins, its genetic aspects, its prehistory and its history. He considers aristocratic families, changes in the contemporary family and so forth. He concludes his book with an investigation of the post-Roots genealogical craze and a visit to the Mormon archive of human family, "the Mountain of Names."

"The Mountain of Names" has an amazing cast of characters, tribes, genes, cultures, human beings from all ages and from every kind of civilization, a host of experts--shaman and scholar, genealogist and snob, primitive and slicker--all of whose views about the family contribute to Shoumatoff's understanding of the subject.

In the end, Shoumatoff is a kind of private eye, sifting through his lore, talking to the drifters who ply the family trade. We learn the facts of kinship over his shoulder. Shoumatoff doesn't claim expertise, but he does have confidence that leg work and brain work will pay off, and it does.

Shoumatoff's encounters with scholars, native tribesmen, English pedigree chasers, his own family and, of course, the Mormon custodians and statisticians of the "mountain of names" are well-told adventures that incidentally remind us of the extraordinary variety of knowledge available to the modern human being. Each kind of knowledge appears to propose a different notion of family, human nature and society.

Thus Shoumatoff observes the contemporary frequency of "serial monogamy," lighting with good humor on this and other characteristic modern kinship groupings. He connects them to our good luck and bad, our material and intellectual cosmopolitanism and our sense of loss. Showing each choice, he sides with neither; that is, he doesn't tell yuppies to go back into the bush or the divorced to pretend that the second time around (or third or . . .) is the first. Having explored the choices and the trade-offs, he suggests that family has always formed a horizon of human life, bound to limit as well as secure life lived within it.

Shoumatoff's information--whether in tribal terms of insularity, demographic projections on consanguinity, or systematic ransacking of the family past by the Mormons--suggests the kinship of all human beings dead and alive. People live in families because they always have. They just do. Even we who wonder if we do or worry if we don't or proclaim that we don't, turn out, according to some anthropologists, to be re-pioneering the oldest forms of human kinship here and now.

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