Digging for truth 

Manning's memoir investigates more than family

Truth and trust, and the lack thereof, are the central themes to Richard Manning's defiant new memoir, It Runs in the Family. The Missoula author starts with a story rooted in a complicated childhood, mainly the result of Christian fundamentalist parents. At one point he writes, "I did not love my mother. I no longer find this sentence sad or troubling, simply true..." In another instance, he relays an anecdote told to him by his father and adds, "My dad told me this story so I don't know if it is true."

Manning's history of questioning and challenging his parents leads him—and the book—to his career as a muckraking journalist. The natural progression from digging for answers from Mom and Dad to searching for reportable facts provides the perfect framework for Manning to touch on a number of larger issues while also recounting his life.

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  • Richard Manning reads from It Runs in the Family at Shakespeare & Co. Tue., July 16, at 7 PM. Free.

Manning is an award-winning environmental writer who grew up in Michigan but landed in Montana over two decades ago. He wrote for the Missoulian starting in 1985, and the daily published a series of Manning's articles, along with photos from Michael Gallacher, that exposed the timber industry's practice of over-logging. The exact details of what happened afterward probably depend on who you talk to, but eventually the situation blew up. Logging companies were mad. Manning writes that Lee Enterprises (still the owner of the Missoulian) felt pressure to remove him from the environmental beat. During an infamous clash with the paper's editor, Manning quit.

Manning eventually wrote a book, Last Stand, about the logging industry and his experience at the Missoulian. He has since gone on to publish books on agriculture and the environment, and recently penned a fantastic piece in the New Yorker titled "The Oil We Eat."

It Runs in the Family covers the over-logging drama, but it takes a while to get there. Instead, it begins with a defeated Manning discussing his failed attempt to sell high-end stereos, and feeling a sense of failure about his journalism career. He drinks too much. This morose start pivots almost immediately to an intense lesson in the genealogy of the Manning family—who was born to whom, and when, with a history that tracks as far back as Welsh kings and herders. It's as confusing as keeping track of the characters in a Gabriel Garcia Márquez novel, and even less interesting.

This tedium lessens as Manning moves to his early years growing up in Michigan. Here's where he delivers the meat of the story, including his complicated relationship with his mother and father. His family is full of evangelical Christians and Manning at a young age quickly rebels and becomes an atheist. This leads to one of the funnier, but telling parts of the book. Faith without facts no longer means anything, and he writes, "the same thing had happened only a few years before as I did the math on Santa Claus—total number of chimney-bearing households in North America and Europe and average distance between, factored against reindeer velocity, average time per visit, that sort of thing."

From here, Manning weaves through stories of forest fire policy, Bob Dylan, the newspaper industry and studies on the close ties between family abuse and addiction. With Dylan, he talks about the importance of authentic storytelling. "Somehow it occurred to me that you can make a valid story by listening to what ordinary people say," he writes. "This had much to do with choosing to spend my life carrying a skinny notebook and writing down what ordinary people say."

On the surface, this range of subjects feels loose, but Manning fits the pieces together with amazing grace. He continues to come back to people who revise stories and people who try to get to the truth. For instance, Manning points out that climate change deniers, big corporations and religious zealots have a tendency to believe something and distort the facts to fit that belief. So it has been with forest fire policy, and so it is with a family that always kept its secrets.

It Runs in the Family covers many political and societal issues, but it's most powerful when Manning gets personal. Manning's father is a lost soul whose bitterness about taxes and unflinching faith in Jesus turns him into a wanderer. Manning presents him as a symbol of what's wrong with the nation (i.e. the Tea Party). Later, the story of his father becomes more intimate. His father has gone missing in Panama, and Manning's search for him ends with a complicated decision—one that feels like it comes from a place of both kindness and comeuppance.

Manning never excuses his parents, but he does search for ways to understand them. His more immediate family—wife, ex-wife and son—are mentioned only in passing as a means of protecting them. "A saga ignores some intimate relationships," he writes at one point. Some stories, he notes, are not his to tell.

There's a rawness to Manning's memoir that makes it extremely poignant. His bitterness and fury often bleed through. So does his passion for wilderness and his keen desire to connect with people who he cares about. The book ties no loose ends, offers no rosy finale. But it does make a case for never being afraid to ask questions that have complicated answers.

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