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  • The Family: A World History by Mary Jo Maynes and Ann Waltner
  • Merry Wiesner-Hanks
The Family: A World History. By Mary Jo Maynes and Ann Waltner (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. xi plus 147 pp.).

This welcome addition to the New Oxford World History series examines both the history of the family as a social institution from Paleolithic times to the present, and the ways in which the family has been an agent of historical change. The chapters are arranged chronologically, but each also has a theme, including religion and the family, ruling families, and the family in the global marketplace. The chapter on the twentieth century focuses on “families in the era of state population management,” a good choice of theme to unify a number of different developments.

Each chapter makes general points, and then focuses on several areas of the world or social groups, with comparisons among them. These more detailed discussions include topics that one would expect, such as Confucianism in China, the Industrial Revolution in England, and the eugenics movement in Nazi Germany and the United States, but also more unusual subjects. Among the latter are the ways in which links of kinship, religion, common business practices, and language allowed Armenian and Sephardic Jewish families to create diasporic merchant communities and global trading links in the early modern period. Unexpected subjects also include lineages of scholars in fourteenth-century Timbuktu, the complex relationship among family, ethnic categories, and citizenship for European settlers in nineteenth-century Algeria, and the role of family ideals in the anticolonial movement in twentieth-century Vietnam.

For each of these topics, the authors highlight a specific individual, often with a well-chosen quote or two. Thus the section on Sephardic Jews examines Beatrice Mendes, the widow of a Portuguese merchant who moved to Venice and became a trader in spices and cloth, that on Algeria describes Isabelle Eberhardt, a young European woman who after moving to Algeria with her mother adopted male Bedouin dress so that she could move more freely, and that on Vietnam discusses the ways in which Ho Chi Minh used Confucian ideas of filial piety and loyalty to the family as well as nationalism when envisioning the future of the country. Thus the book avoids staying at the level of generalization, which can often be a problem in brief books that span the globe.

Throughout the book, the authors include comments about the evidence available for the study of the family, again providing a balance between expected sources such as letters and unusual ones such as the chemical analysis of bones, folk songs, oral traditions, and toys. In discussing the lineages of scholars in Timbuktu, for example, the authors note that their descendants often maintained [End Page 460] manuscripts recording both family and political history for centuries. They include an interview with one contemporary Timbuktu scholar, whose case of family records stretches back to the sixteenth century. (Family histories such as this were among the centuries-old manuscripts destroyed by Islamist soldiers as they pulled out of Timbuktu in early 2013, although the destruction turned out to be less severe than initially reported because of the protective actions of local librarians.)

The book ends with a brief chapter on the future of the family, which stresses local variations and global connections for a variety of topics: long-distance migration, gay marriage, reproductive technologies, international adoptions, and elder care. With well-chosen illustrations and maps that locate all the places discussed, this would be an excellent supplement for a world history survey.

Merry Wiesner-Hanks
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee


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pp. 460-461
Launched on MUSE
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