7th cousins roadtrip through self-discovery and problematic history

7th Cousins: An Automythography
Erin Brubacher and Christine Brubaker, 190 pgs, Book*hug Press bookhugpress.ca, $25

You probably can’t tearily salute a flag in the Bible Belt without hitting a tourist.

It’s why it’s tempting to chalk up Erin Brubacher and Christine Brubaker’s 7th Cousins: An Automythography as another story of secular urbanites on safari in the hinterlands. In July 2015, the two distant relations set out to retrace the migration of their Menonite ancestors — a 700-kilometre, 32-day trek through rural Pennsylvania that wraps up in Ontario.

The book documents the pair’s live performances based on their journey, complete with slideshow-esque travel pictures and transcription of their improvised recollections. That’s where the title comes from: An “automythography,” the authors write, is an on the fly “naming the way our current understandings shape our memories and our way of seeing the past.”

Granted, some elements are better suited to stage, like the book’s blurry photos of hand gestures representing their journey, or clunky transcribed dialogue featuring plenty of “yeahs,” “rights,” and “sures.” And the journey itself has its own implications — stalwart settlers fleeing persecution for freedom — that the authors thankfully nip in the bud. The authors acknowledge that the land was stolen and much of it remains unceded, and that many of those who came before the Mennonites never left or gave up fighting.

Road trippers, take notes. Colonial imagery all too often hobbles a genre largely based on self-discovery in the untamed countryside. It also leaves the book better placed to tackle the Trump era when it rears its head as the Brubaker family reunion leaders promise to “secure” their history.

What makes 7th Cousins interesting is its willingness to reckon with these problematic histories. History, for the authors, isn’t something to secure. It’s instead something to play with, which allows us to choose our families and make our homes. That warmth is more than enough to make up for some awkward transitions between stage and print.