William Bailey’s Tangled Branches tries to untangle the twisted knots of centuries of family history “in a small city in the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee” and the intertwining threads of slavery and racism. To that end, his colorful, sometimes outrageous chronicle blends passed-down family lore, detailed research, and imaginative reconstruction.
The story begins when the author, middle-aged and white, answers a knock on his front door to find Kaylan, college-aged and African-American, saying, “I think yours owned my great-great-grandparents.” Initially defensive, Bailey decides to tell what he knows about those ancestors of Kaylan’s born into slavery, and argue that his slave-owning ancestors were not simply villains of history.
His great-great-grandfather William Perry, a successful mill owner, freed his slaves—although they had to pay him. More laudably, he apparently turned a “blind eye” when Kaylan’s ancestor Matilda “Tilly” Burton turned the home into an Underground Railroad station. The author posits genuine and mutual affection, not just entrenched inequality, kept Tilly and her husband, Samuel, with Perry’s family long after the Civil War.
He doesn’t quite portray his family as heroes, however. In a narrative that stretches up to the 1960s, he recounts myriad family scandals: mysterious deaths, illicit affairs, and, during Prohibition, unscrupulous great-grandmother Emma expanding her brothers’ private moonshine operation in partnership with a vacationing Al Capone.
At times, it’s unclear when Bailey is sharing fact and when he’s indulging in speculation, particularly when long-ago events are shared in great detail. There are also odd anachronisms, like plastic being described in the 1870s, and historical errors, such as a claim that Britain’s King James I “never gained the throne.” Given the controversial central subject—American race relations—Bailey would be on firmer ground if all the book’s details convinced.
If readers can invest themselves in a story which the author avers in the preface is “true-ish,” they should enjoy this recounting of two American families’ journeys through a turbulent history.
Also available in hardcover and ebook.