View from near Point Sublime on the north rim of the Grand Canyon, 1900-1930

Tracing Land and Race Across America: book review of Trace

Lauret E. Savoy, Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape (Counterpoint, 2015)

Lauret Savoy begins her remarkable book Trace in the liminality of between places. She poses with her family on the precipice of Point Sublime. Behind them opens the expanse of the Grand Canyon. Behind her on this liminal pathway between two childhood lives recedes an idyllic California of early childhood; ahead awaits the confusing, humiliating, painful years of adolescence festering in Washington, D.C. Between these lives, the 7-year-old girl looks away as a camera shutter captures that pivotal moment on Point Sublime. “History began for me on The Move,” she recalls decades later. “What preceded was a sense of infinite promise and possibility in a world that made sense. What followed promised nothing.”

View from near Point Sublime on the north rim of the Grand Canyon, 1900-1930
View from near Point Sublime on the north rim of the Grand Canyon, 1900-1930 (Photo by Charles C. Pierce, 1861-1946; digitally reproduced by the USC Digital Library, from the California Historical Society Collection at the University of Southern California)

What follows in subsequent chapters weaves history, geology, and personal memoir in profound tales that peel back layers of a place called America. Traces suggest surface lines, but Savoy goes deep, more excavations than tracings, bringing new light to underexposed depths. This elegantly written book unveils clues to occluded pasts as it traces the etchings of earth and history across the continent.

Savoy’s excavations drill into the deep geological histories of the land, the long cultural histories of people on the land, and her own personal history from early childhood on the sunny west coast to the oppressive realities of a young girl of color in the nation’s capital. Her journey takes Savoy into the silent pasts of her parents’ confrontations with apartheid America. At every turn she encounters gaps, silences, and brokenness that haunt the stories of official “history.” In the America she traces, the consequences of these lacunae exert a heavy hand in every life. “To inhabit this country,” Savoy concludes, “is to be marked by residues of its still unfolding history, a history weighted by tangled ideas of ‘race’ and of the land itself.” The poetically inflected journeys she embarks upon take us into a constantly fragmented and inherently unstable place to call home.

The violent past of this place becomes apparent along its edges. Savoy touches the hard metal of the border fence at Naco, Arizona, where she lays her hands on the recent trace of brutal history. She tells of U.S. aggressions that decided boundaries between the United States and Mexico; included in these acts of geopolitical imperialism were genocidal onslaughts against native peoples. Reminders of those unsavory histories trace the land with fences and footpaths, and with reservations that include what the San Carlos Apache people claim is “the world’s first concentration camp still existing to this day.” Such are the residues of unfolding history, tracing a buried guilt across deserts and mountains and icy lakefronts.

I will read Savoy’s book again, probably many times. And I will read the stories it doesn’t tell, too numerous for its 186 pages, in my own tracings of the American land. The untold tales of a complicated, painful, and persistently unresolved past that Trace unveils are found everywhere in this land. We stand perpetually at the sublime point between who we thought we were and who we might become. ♨

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