Split at the Root by Catana Tully is an intricate study of self-identity, social influences, and familial ties. The first story Catana can remember is one Mutti, her German mother, tells about her “birth.” Mutti tells Catana that she floated down the river on a leaf, and that, in that moment, Mutti knew Catana was hers to keep. This is just one of many “fairytales” that Mutti tells Catana about her life (and her history).
Catana was born to Rosa, a Black woman, in Livingston. However, she was raised by a White, German woman, who called her “Mohrle,” or “little Moor.” Catana grows up in a White household, treated as a privileged White. As such, she is uncomfortable around people of color and even begins to hate her birth mother. Throughout her life, she struggles with issues of race, identity, and prejudice. Mutti refuses to acknowledge the deeper issues, preferring to mold Catana into a likable, competent woman, who has “the right frame.”
Catana decides to flout her education and become an actress. Along the way, she meets Fred, and they fall in love and marry. All her life, Catana has been surrounded by White people. She knows next to nothing about her birth mother and even less about her father and the rest of her biological family. On a trip back to her birth village, she begins to get hints that Mutti may not have been telling her the whole truth—words like “stolen child” are thrown around in context to Mutti and Catana’s relationship. As Catana digs deeper, she uncovers secrets about her heritage and her upbringing. Along the way, she must confront her racial identity and all that goes with it.
Tully’s memoir is extremely detailed. She begins with her first memories and continues to the present day. By the end of the tale, it is as if the reader is a part of the family that Catana is trying to piece together. Her story is emotional—full of love, laughter, and even fear. The reader will watch Catana grow up and find her own identity. The story is impossible to put down as Catana attempts to unravel the complicated mystery that surrounds her biological family. It takes many years for her to learn the truth and just as long, maybe longer, for her to know herself. It may be a memoir, but at points, it reads like a detective novel. Even though it is one woman’s life and history, it touches on important racial, societal, and personal identity issues.