It Runs in the Family: A Memoir

It Runs in the Family: A Memoir

by Richard Manning, Dick Manning

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It Runs in the Family is a memoir of faith and willful ignorance, truths and secrets, rural and urban labor, and fire: fire as both knowledge and destructive force.

Richard Manning was raised on a piece of farmland in Michigan, in a working- class family of Christian fundamentalists. Manning's father was a jack of many trades: farmer, carpenter,


It Runs in the Family is a memoir of faith and willful ignorance, truths and secrets, rural and urban labor, and fire: fire as both knowledge and destructive force.

Richard Manning was raised on a piece of farmland in Michigan, in a working- class family of Christian fundamentalists. Manning's father was a jack of many trades: farmer, carpenter, builder, power lineman, factory worker, small businessman. His mother concealed her own troubled childhood beneath a religious faith that explained away uncertainty, illness, and tragedy.

Manning grew up learning how to work and what to believe---but came to understand his family's seemingly-normal facade as a mask for troubling secrets. It Runs in the Family is the story of Manning's journey away from his family, one that ranges from their Michigan farm to the fire-ravaged wilderness of Montana, and finally to a remote village in Panama, where he comes to pursue a past he had vowed to leave behind. Linking his own life with the larger story of his family, the land they inhabited, and the right-wing fundamentalist politics gaining ground in America, Richard Manning offers a singular memoir.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Fans of Montana-based author and environmental writer Manning’s previous work exploring the physical and psychic terrain of the American frontier (Rewilding the West: Restoration in a Prairie Landscape) will enjoy this autobiography, which moves through various topics like a winding country road. Manning recounts his life on a Michigan farm, dwelling on his parents, whom he describes as “fundamentalist right-wing Christians of the same exact stripe that plays an appallingly significant role in American life.” While Manning retains his respect and admiration for farming life—a description of a job he held at age 14 at a slaughterhouse excellently shows how that business served “as an essential hub and infrastructure of a traditional farming community”—his main concern is his “emancipation” from his family and their religious restrictions, first through a scholarship to the University of Michigan and then through a succession of newspaper jobs that take him further and further into the West, all of which he details in a superbly precise manner. Manning eventually finds his father at the end of a long road as a missionary, “literally a homeless, babbling bum” in Panama. But throughout the book, he focuses on “what transpires between a father and son, what one generation gives to and gets from another.” Agent: Peter Matson, Sterling Lord. (July 9)
From the Publisher

“Richard Manning has written a beautiful literary memoir with the clear-eyed assessment of a journalist. He doesn't spare himself or his family as he examines the American obsession with work, faith, and family, and the way we love and resent them with equal ardor.” —Carolyn Briggs, author of Higher Ground: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost

“Richard Manning is the West's greatest journalist. Read this book, and then everything else he has written, and everything he ever will write.” —Rick Bass, author of Colter, Why I Came West, and The Wild Marsh

“Richard Manning's work has always been something special, distinguished by its intense passion and its penetrating insights. Whenever we encounter a writer with those qualities, we have to ask what gave birth to them. It Runs in the Family answers that question. This is a remarkable book, not only an authentically American memoir but a diagnosis of our larger national condition.” —George Black, author of Empire of Shadows: The Epic Story of Yellowstone

“As a newsman, Dick Manning set a standard in the West for brave, hard-hitting reporting about the big environmental issues that pit money against the land; and he always spoke for the land, for which the West should be thankful. Now he has produced a sometimes charming, often irascible memoir of family, religion, and journalism that is not for fans of gentle nostalgia. If you like the real stuff, though, with the muscle showing and the details enumerated in the way a fine journalist does it, give It Runs in the Family a try.” —John N. Maclean, author of The Esperanza Fire: Arson, Murder and the Agony of Engine 57

“Richard Manning is the most significant social critic in the northern Rockies and short-grass plains. It Runs in the Family tells the blue-collar story of his family, and how he progressed from there to here. It's fearless and incisive while cutting through a lot of nonsense. We're fortunate to have Dick Manning as he continues his demands for fairness while casting light on our future.” —William Kittredge, author of Hole in the Sky

“In the first decade of this century, when America's so-called "prayer president" was leading us into oil wars that produced no oil and free markets that resulted in financial meltdown, Amory Lovins nailed the ruling psychosis in eight words: "In God we trust. Everyone else, bring data." In It Runs in the Family Richard Manning goes a step further. In the nation-state's God he does not trust. And with incisive intelligence and shattering, experience-based data, he tells us why, then reveals what he, as a pagan, a brilliant skeptic, and a fierce lover of country, does trust. The result is one of the finest diagnostic memoirs of our time.” —David James Duncan, author of The River Why and The Brothers K

Kirkus Reviews
A journalist's memoir of how he escaped the Christian fundamentalism that shaped, and distorted, both his and his parents' lives. Manning (Rewilding the West: Restoration in a Prairie Landscape, 2009, etc.) grew up on a farm in Michigan, the son of a working-class man with "a work ethic so deeply ingrained, it was not an ethic any more than breathing was." His Christian fundamentalist mother "saved" his father, and the pair attempted to raise their children as Baptists. But as a teenager, Manning's faith quickly "dissolved under logic." A scholarship to the University of Michigan freed him from his parents' fundamentalism. Ravenous for knowledge and "the sweep of big ideas," Manning studied political science and philosophy. Yet it was folk music that made him realize that what the common person had to say was perhaps even more important. Mesmerized by the populism of Bob Dylan, Manning pursued journalism, which he took up after he left Michigan without a degree. He started by covering "cops and courts" for the Alpena News in Michigan, then moved on to the Post Register in Idaho, where he began covering political news. A corporate buyout impelled Manning to seek work at the Missoulian in Montana, where he wrote a series of articles condemning the logging industry that caused him to lose his job. In the meantime, the fundamentalist parents with whom he had little contact slowly receded into "an increasingly eccentric world of their own." His terminally ill mother put her fate in God's hands and died a horrific death while his father became a lunatic vagabond whom Manning tracked to the jungles of Panama. The story is as compelling as the parallels the author draws between it and the rise of Christian fundamentalism and right-wing politics in America. However, Manning also tends to intellectualize and shies away from probing the interpersonal dynamics of his family too deeply. Intriguing, but at times dry and not entirely satisfying.

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.80(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.30(d)

Read an Excerpt





I started this investigation in deep winter of January 2009, when I was in retreat, beaten and broke. My business had failed, as did many in our nation that year. I drank too much. My house was on the market, a forced sale, since sold. Journalism, the good work I had done my whole life, was necrotic. The last of these weighed most on me, my life’s work rendered worthless. Nonetheless, journalism was all I had then, so I used it to dig my way out of a hole. This is the process recorded in this book.

Asking questions and reporting answers is how I have always worked, so there is nothing at all unusual in my spending three years so engaged. What was unusual, though, was that the questions, of necessity, probed private matters, because of my own state of disrepair in the beginning and the simple fact that my father had died a few weeks before. He was an extraordinary man, and mostly not in any good sense of the word. Part of my burden that winter was a sense of shame for who he was. The truth is, I had spent most of my life to that point trying to get away from him, trying to ignore him and the rest of my family and trying just as desperately to deny any influence he might have had on the course of my own life. Yet oddly it occurred to me that the time had come to account, not just for my own sake, but more relevantly because of the public’s stake in my private questions. I had until then lived most of a life never publicly acknowledging my parents, and now, paradoxically, public events demand I do so, as I will in what follows.

Anyone who had seen my dad in his last days—and I had, finding him literally in a jungle, a homeless, babbling bum lost a hemisphere away from home—would have thought him mad, and he was. He suffered a peculiar and specific madness. He and my mother—she had died a few years before—had lived their lives as fundamentalist right-wing Christians of the exact same stripe that plays an appallingly significant role in American public life. Indeed, in that January of 2009, the very month that fundamentalist-in-chief George W. Bush left office, it was easy enough to see how my father’s madness had become a general plague on the nation. It is this parallel that dictated my assignment for the next three years, that I would need to abandon my studied ignorance of my father’s life and admit to our common story, our common genes, even admit to the possibility of our common madness.

Now three years on, it is my job to report, but you already know I cannot bring news of great improvement in the nation’s well-being. The troubles imposed by Bush did not end with his presidency; John Birchers, Koch brothers, Tea Party, Fox News, know-nothing fundamentalism, Newt Gingrich—my father’s fellow travelers, every one—remain. We remain at war. We are governed by plutocrats, many of us impoverished, and a nation shaken to our financial foundations. The country is not much better off three years on, but I am, and I am as a result of asking questions, of learning and facing the consequences of my story and my kinship with a madman.

Then, though, I could only retreat to watch it snow and wonder what was to be done about me and about the rest of us. So I rented a small cabin for a week on the edge of the Rocky Mountain Front a few hours drive east of where I live in Montana. The cabin backed up against mountains of the vast Bob Marshall Wilderness at the western edge of the howling Great Plains. It snowed, and snowed hard nearly every day of the week I was there. Just up the trail, there was a wintering herd of mule deer, and from time to time I went out to walk among them, grand ghostly creatures circling me in halting steps I took for grace, but know to be their obedience to the demands of winter, a sort of ambulatory hibernation. Step easy and conserve every bit of energy if you are to survive. If there were a third party there to record that scene, it would look like a truce of deep winter’s peace between man and animal. Honoring and understanding the terms of that truce have much to do with why I am better off today.

In the cabin, there was a bottle of good Irish whiskey with barely the neck knocked out. I had six bottles of decent red wine, a venison roast, some garlic and parsnips. I have a good wife, beautiful and decent enough to spend this week in the cabin with me out of iPhone range, cell range, a rare electronic silence. Willing even to tolerate my own silence as I retreated to wilderness to think of these things. I had a Filson wool jacket, red-and-black buffalo plaid, competent boots and thick wool socks. I had a stack of books piled before the rimed mullioned panes of the cabin.

There was a wood stove, a Jotul, a clever little Norwegian model and the best I ever used. There were parallel piles of thinly split yellow pine, limber pine, quaking aspen, and a bit of fir to each side of the cabin door. For me and for the long line of northern latitude people I come from, a woodpile is well-being. So my days passed mostly in endless fascination of feeding the fire. Hundreds of generations of my northern European bloodline, facing long, cold winters, bred this little stove, and I am proud of our work, proud of our people, immediate and otherwise, and I connect to them through my father. This, then, is my first realization and admission of kinship to him and the privilege it brings.

The stove has secondary combustion, which means if I get it running just right, it will burn its own smoke in a whooshing roar and with a blue flame one associates with natural gas, not wood, and I do indeed get it running just right. I can build a fire. I can jump-start a pickup truck. Grease boots. Wax skis. Split wood. Dress a deer. Break rock. Right a raft. Incise a clean dovetail in rock maple and fit the joint. Can and did build a house every nail, solder joint, and wire nut. My dad has something to do with this. He and everyone in his line could make things work, a simple fact every bit as relevant as his religion. This facility with real work is the counterbalance to religious fanaticism in the story that will develop here, in my story and in the American story. Owning up to this is part of what made be better.

My dad’s death put a trigger in my hand, with a command to sit at this computer’s keyboard and fire. The death of both of my parents frees me to tell our collective story, that last adjective a painful admission, but I make it. It is a family story, collective. I am from them. They are finally both dead, and now there must be an account, not because they were unusual, but because in the American context they were not.


Copyright © 2013 by Richard Manning

Meet the Author

RICHARD MANNING is an award-winning author and journalist. He has written seven books, including Rewilding the West: Restoration in a Prairie Landscape, Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization, Food's Frontier: The Next Green Revolution, and Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics, and Promise of the American Prairie. He lives in Helena, Montana.

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