One on One: You may have to wait to read the ‘best book ever’

Published 7:23 pm Saturday, February 8, 2020

By D.G. Martin

“It is one of the best books I ever read, maybe the best.”

That got my attention, but when my friend told me it was a family history, I cooled down.

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“But this one is something different. It is special. I couldn’t put it down.”

So when she pushed a copy of John May’s privately published “The Mays of Alamanns’ Creek: A Family Odyssey” on me, I agreed to read a few pages. That decision was made easier because May, a retired textile executive, is also the author of “Poe and Fanny,” an imaginative and deeply researched novel based on a portion of Edgar Allan Poe’s life. It is one of my all-time favorites.

Still, I was skeptical. Family histories can be interesting. But, even when written by great writers, they can also be tedious or too inwardly focused to have broad appeal.

Because May grew up in a prominent Burlington family, I thought the book would teach me some interesting regional history. Maybe I would learn more. Family histories and memoirs reach back generations, sometimes even going back across the ocean to times before the family came to North America.

It turns out that May follows his family to times long before their arrival in Burlington, before his ancestors landed in Pennsylvania and moved to Burlington. He follows them all the way back to the 1500s in Germany.

And if that weren’t enough, he then takes his family back to the origin of human and human-like species in Africa thousands and thousands of years ago.

Using the results of recent findings in genetics, anthropology and other science, he builds a framework to tell stories about what might have happened to his ancestors as they migrated. Over thousands of years they moved slowly from Africa, across to Asia, then along lands beside the Black Sea, through what is now Bulgaria and Rumania, up the Danube and down the Rhine rivers winding up in a small village near Frankfurt, Germany.

May explains how the slow migration often took place in clans or family groups. When a settled group outgrew the capacity of its surrounding land, it would break up and move far enough away to have its own separate land that could provide sufficient game and other food.

Slowly, over thousands of years, these incremental relocations would lead to massive movements of populations.

As he did in “Poe and Fanny,” May mixes fact and fiction. His ancestor, Jorg May, born in 1520 in Gelnhausen, Germany, managed a vineyard. That is fact. Also factual are the accounts of the uncertain times created by the religious and political upheavals that resulted from Martin Luther’s break with the Catholic Church. Based around these facts and his research about the times, May creates believable and interesting characters and stories of their lives.

May’s story becomes more relevant when Jorg’s descendant, Daniel May, a poor German farm boy, read glowing reports about North Carolina in a publication called “The Golden Book.”

He made his way to Amsterdam and then to Pennsylvania and down the Wagon Road to what became Alamance County. He arrived in time for the Regulator Rebellion and the American Revolution.

Daniel’s grandson, Henry P., moved to Indiana, served in the Union Army, and moved to California before coming back to Alamance to court and marry Barbara, a woman he met before the war when she was working in a textile factory. Their grandson, William Henry May, built a textile empire in Burlington. He is John May’s grandfather.

All these stories, blended fact and fiction, set in different times and places, and so well told by May, make for an unusual and satisfying reading experience.

Sadly, May only printed a few copies for friends and family. We may have to wait a while before more are available.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” Sundays at 3:30 p.m. and Tuesdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. The program also airs on the North Carolina Channel Tuesdays at 8 p.m. and other times.