Ami McKay is a beloved fiction writer. She is the author of three internationally bestselling novels and one Christmas seasonal novella. It is our good fortune that she settled in Scot’s Bay and drew out of the local ether her tale called The Birth House.
Her about-to-be-released next book, which is a memoir — Daughter of Family G: A Memoir of Cancer Genes, Love and Fate, is a lovingly chronicled family tale about a fatal genetic predisposition. One senses that Ami has been aiming to write this saga for a long, long time.
In fact, Daughter of Family G. had its beginnings in a radio documentary Ami prepared tracing her decision to undergo genetic testing. The documentary won a silver medallion at the Atlantic Journalism Awards, and aired nationally on CBC Radio and on National Public Radio in the United States.
Some years ago, she said her process of creation was to “shake the branches of my family tree looking for stories to stare back at me from between its leaves. Most of my work comes from places where the past collides with the present, and fantastic things occur in unexpected ways.”
In the best of creative non-fiction writing, this genetic memoir weaves together her family history and scenes from her past, along with genetic sleuthing carried out by varied medical pathologists.
Born and raised in Indiana, Ami’s tale begins before 1900 in Michigan. In 1895, her great-great aunt, Pauline Gross, a seamstress, confessed to a pathology professor that she expected to die young, like so many others in her family.
Rather than dismiss her fears, Dr. Aldred Warthin chose to enlist Pauline in a careful monitoring of her family tree for those who had died of cancer. Her premonition proved true — she died at 46 — but because of her efforts, her family (who were dubbed 'Family G') would become the longest and most detailed cancer genealogy ever studied in the world.
A century later, researchers would locate the genetic mutation responsible for this long family history. Now known as Lynch syndrome, the condition predisposes its carriers to several types of cancer.
Moving between generations, Ami makes her readers comprehend this unsettling legacy of hereditary cancer. In a chapter called Being Invisible set in 1974, she describes hiding as a kid under the kitchen table listening to talk of diagnosis and treatment.
She is a small daughter watching her mother navigate a difficult parent. Ami is also a granddaughter trying to be loyal to two important adults in her life. It is beautifully written.
Known in scientific literature simply as ‘The Seamstress,’ Ami’s great-great aunt is forever a hero in her heart. She has said this book is as much Pauline’s as it is hers. But this tender memoir is also a tribute from daughter to mother.
I remember sitting in a sold-out Al Whittle Theatre the night in 2006 that The Birth House was launched. Ami’s mother couldn’t be in Wolfville because she was about to start chemotherapy, so the new author asked all of us audience members for a favour. When the cell phone connection was made, collectively we called out, ‘Hi Mom.”
At the time, very few of us knew the backstory of cancer in Ami’s family. I just thought she was close to her mother. But she had already come to understand that carrying the mutation that killed so many people she loved, could also kill her.
As a young mother, she was among the first to be tested for Lynch syndrome in 2001. She had an intuition the test would be positive. After all, her mother's side of the family was riddled with early deaths. Ami found herself living in "an unsettling state between wellness and cancer."
But she has adopted her mother’s well-tested advice: “Whatever happens, we’ll handle it. Don’t assume the worst. Don’t tempt fate.”
Daughter of Family G. also takes a fierce look at the wave of interest in eugenics that swept America in the 1930s. It showed its ugly face here too, but nothing like the Nazis. Ami raises the spectre of U.S. nationalism and gene science being used to reunite would be immigrant families.
An evening of story and song, and a peek inside Ami’s family photo album will launch her memoir locally on Sept. 25 at the Ross Creek Centre for the Arts. Tickets are required.
This summer marked a century since the death of Pauline Gross from uterine cancer. She was the original Daughter of Family G. Ami has told her story well and I recommend you read it.
Former Advertiser and Register reporter Wendy Elliott, now retired, lives in Wolfville.