In this exquisite family memoir, Benfey (a professor of English at Mount Holyoke College), chronicles, among other things, the fleeing of his great uncle and great aunt -- the Bauhaus artists Josef and Anni Albers -- from Nazi Germany to the American South, and helping to guide North Carolina's famed Black Mountain College. (Teachers included such luminaries as John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg.)
Benfey began to contemplate his family history around the time he turned fifty, when "I had found myself surrendering increasingly to a retrospective mood tinged with a faint but unspecified melancholy." In midlife, he writes, life is "as much a task of recovery as of acquisition....To own one's past and the past of one's family takes on a peculiar urgency." On his father's side was Jewish ancestry; his mother's was Southern, rooted in tobacco country, steeped in the tradition of American folk art. The author weaves in stories of art and artists, fairy tales, myth, and other themes, including the brick and clay of the book's evocative title.