Unearthing: A Sto­ry of Tan­gled Love and Fam­i­ly Secrets

January 8, 2023

A sear­ing and unfor­get­table mem­oir about a fam­i­ly secret revealed by a DNA test, the lessons learned in its after­math, and the indeli­ble pow­er of love.

A mov­ing account…[and] a reminder of the abun­dance of expe­ri­ence present in all fam­i­lies, and the pow­er and heal­ing that can come from hon­or­ing those many truths.” —The Wash­ing­ton Post

Three months after Kyo Maclear’s father dies in Decem­ber 2018, she gets the results of a DNA test show­ing that she and the father who raised her are not bio­log­i­cal­ly relat­ed. Sud­den­ly Maclear becomes a detec­tive in her own life, unrav­el­ling a fam­i­ly mys­tery piece by piece, and assem­bling the sto­ry of her bio­log­i­cal father. Along the way, larg­er ques­tions arise: what exact­ly is kin­ship? What does it mean to be a fam­i­ly? And how do we belong to larg­er ecosystems?

Unearthing is a cap­ti­vat­ing and propul­sive sto­ry of inher­i­tance that goes beyond hered­i­ty. Infused with moments of sus­pense, it is also a thought­ful reflec­tion on race, lin­eage, and our cul­tur­al fix­a­tion on recre­ation­al genet­ics. Read­ers of Michelle Zauner’s best­seller Cry­ing in H Mart will rec­og­nize Maclear’s unflinch­ing insights on grief and loy­al­ty, and keen per­cep­tions into the rela­tion­ship between moth­ers and daughters.

What gets plant­ed, and what gets buried? What role does sto­ry­telling play in unearthing the past and mak­ing sense of a life? Can the hum­ble act of tend­ing a gar­den pro­vide com­mon ground for an inquis­i­tive daugh­ter and her com­pli­cat­ed moth­er? A love­ly med­i­ta­tion on the hid­den past and the blos­som­ing future” (Kirkus Reviews) and a gen­er­ous, open-hand­ed per­spec­tive” (NPR), Unearthing bursts with the very love it seeks to understand.

Discussion Questions

Kyo Maclear’s Unearthing: A Sto­ry of Tan­gled Love and Fam­i­ly Secrets is a mem­oir about the com­plex­i­ties of the author’s exis­tence and the peo­ple respon­si­ble for it. Sounds like a typ­i­cal mem­oir tem­plate? Think again.

After Maclear’s father dies, she dis­cov­ers, through a DNA test, that the beloved fig­ure of Irish her­itage who helped raise her is not her bio­log­i­cal father. That per­son is an Ashke­nazi Jew. For answers, Maclear seeks out her Japan­ese moth­er, who offers tid­bits of infor­ma­tion that reveal them­selves to be lies — except when they are not. As moth­er and daugh­ter nav­i­gate this new land­scape, they turn to the earth for emo­tion­al sus­te­nance. To say that each finds com­fort and renew­al in plants fails to con­vey how lyri­cal­ly Maclear express­es this aspect of their inter­twined lives.

Unearthing is divid­ed into sek­ki, Japan­ese titles that tra­di­tion­al­ly record small sea­sons,” as a dif­fer­ent way of think­ing about the ever-chang­ing ground of our sto­ries.” Maclear effec­tive­ly uses poet­ic rep­e­ti­tion to intro­duce some sek­ki sec­tions, such as When my father died and I was still his daugh­ter in all ways and with­out ques­tion … ” and When my father died and I was his daugh­ter in all blessed and cursed cir­cum­stances … ” Her sto­ry, which roams the mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry to the present, focus­es on her love for and frus­tra­tion with the par­ents who raised her, as well as her under­stand­able curios­i­ty about the mar­ried, race car-dri­ving bon vivant who seduced her moth­er when she was a young and lone­ly wife.

In her after­word, Maclear writes, I remem­ber think­ing … it is pos­si­ble that mak­ing the gar­den an exten­sion of this sto­ry is wrong.” Thank­ful­ly for read­ers, she con­tin­ued digging.