Winter is a great time to read, isnâ€™t it? Not that thereâ€™s any time of year thatâ€™s not appropriate for reading, but thereâ€™s just something about curling up with a good book when itâ€™s fierce outside that makes it even more of a treat. So I took advantage of the season and did a little curling up recently to read two of the books that were recommended by 24/7 Family History Circle readers.
Somerset Homecoming: Recovering a Lost Heritage
The first book I read was first published back in 1989, although a newer version from 2000 is also available. Written by Dorothy Spruill Redford (with Michael Dâ€™Orso), Generations of Somerset Place: From Slavery to Freedom is definitely going on my list of genealogical must-reads. Lin Mann was the one who initially suggested it:
â€œEvery person can relate to Mrs. Redford, an untrained genealogist or historian who simply started asking everyday questions. That created more questions. That demanded research and a stubborn search for the reality behind family lore. That created pride in knowing; discovering people from scraps of information, her people. Mrs. Redford took it a step further than most of us and shared her knowledge with her now-extended family and the world. Although hers is an African American story, it should inspire every person to explore his/her ethnic roots.â€
And Ms. Mann is right. This book, written in a direct voice that I found very appealing (no sugar-coating and no excessive drama), captivates on several levels. Yes, thereâ€™s the matter that no less than Alex Haley proclaimed, â€œDorothyâ€™s study is the best, most beautifully researched, and most thoroughly presented black family history that I know of.â€
But hers is both a story of the quest, a decade of figure-it-out-as-you-go-along, and the result-a family reunion that brought together roughly 2,000 descendants of both slaves and owners of Somerset Place, a plantation situated in Creswell, North Carolina. Itâ€™s also heartening to learn that Ms. Redford went on to become manager of the site. Regardless of where you are in your research, this one is worth adding to your library, but newcomers to genealogy will especially benefit from its combination of how-to and inspiration.
Always Time to Die
Always Time to Die, by Elizabeth Lowell (a pseudonym for a popular mystery writer) was recommended by several people, and since the writer and her husband have some 30 million books in print, I thought I was in for a treat. And to a certain extent, I was.
This book features a hard-headed, professional genealogist, Carly May, as the central character–and whatâ€™s not to like about that? Accepting an assignment from an elderly woman with New Mexico roots, Carly gets in the middle of a dangerous situation because her clientâ€™s family has plenty of secrets that theyâ€™d like to keep to themselves. So far, so good. And the writing, as you would expect from anyone who has millions of books in print, is excellent. Itâ€™s easy to get pulled into this one.
So whatâ€™s my hesitation in recommending it? I wanted to, believe me, especially when I realized that the resolution of the story would hinge on DNA. So letâ€™s set aside the fact that a family tree at the beginning of the book (am I the only one who studies these intensively?) includes a woman who married in 1887 at age fourteen or fifteen, but only had two children–born in 1916 and 1926, respectively. Yes, your math is right. She had her two children in the twenty-ninth and thirty-ninth years of her marriage, at ages forty-four and fifty-four. The book later elaborates that there were stillbirths between the two children, hints that they might have been out of wedlock, and explains away the second child as a â€œmenopause baby.â€ Hmmm . . .
And letâ€™s accept the notion that the genealogist winds up teaming up (in more ways than one) with a fellow who had conveniently started computerizing a very local New Mexico newspaper (whose contents are critical to her research) back in 1981 when he was thirteen. Sure, that was a typical hobby for a teenager in the early 1980s.
I was willing to suspend disbelief and go along with all this until I got to the DNA. For those of you who know even the basics of genetic genealogy, whatâ€™s wrong with this excerpt?
â€œIf she shows the Senatorâ€™s Y-DNA, then the Senator was her father. Itâ€™s that simple.â€
No, itâ€™s not that simple. Women donâ€™t have Y-DNA. And thatâ€™s probably the first thing you learn when you get into what I like to call â€œgenetealogy.â€
In fact, for anyone with even a passing acquaintance with DNA, the last fifty pages of the book are utterly confusing because of the writerâ€™s confusion. As best as I can tell, sheâ€™s got Y-DNA (the kind thatâ€™s passed paternally) and mtDNA (the kind thatâ€™s passed mostly maternally) muddled in her brain, and that results in a series of nonsensical passages. For those who havenâ€™t played with DNA, itâ€™s roughly the equivalent of having a story hinge on fingerprinting, but then mixing up the features, uses and interpretations of fingerprints and footprints.
I understand that this is entertainment–a â€œcheck your brain at the doorâ€ situation. And Iâ€™ll be the first to admit that Iâ€™m a tad more obsessed with DNA than the average Joe. But if even your fiction revolves around some piece of reality, such as how DNA can be applied in genealogy, itâ€™s a good idea to master the basics of that reality.
Donâ€™t get me wrong. This is one of the best-written novels Iâ€™ve seen with a genealogist in the central role, but maybe thatâ€™s why Iâ€™m so sensitive to its shortcomings. Itâ€™s the kind of book that makes me wonder how magical it could have been if the writer had done her homework.
Hereâ€™s where I invite you to feed my habit! If this is the first youâ€™re hearing about my genealogical reading quest, you might want to check out some earlier articles:
- The Book Quest ContinuesÂ
- Genealogical Books in DisguiseÂ
- Genealogical CoziesÂ
- Curl Up with a Genealogical Mystery
Iâ€™ve got a stash of earlier suggestions to read, but Iâ€™m always open to indulging in another book binge, so please feel free to add your recommendations here!
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Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak, co-author (with Ann Turner) of â€œTrace Your Roots with DNA: Using Genetic Tests to Explore Your Family Treeâ€ (as well as â€œIn Search of Our Ancestors,â€ â€œHonoring Our Ancestorsâ€ and â€œThey Came to Americaâ€), can be contacted through http://rootstelevision.com/blogs/megans-rootsworld.html, http://www.honoringourancestors.com, and http://www.genetealogy.com.
Upcoming Events Where Megan Will Be Speaking
- Haddon Fortnightly
(February 13, 2007, Haddonfield, NJ)
- DuPage County Genealogy Society Conference
(February 24, 2007, St. Charles, IL)
- Enoch Pratt Free Library
(March 17, 2007, Baltimore, MD)
- Wisconsin State Genealogical Society Gene-a-Rama
(April 13-14, 2007, Oconomowoc, WI)
- New England Historic Genealogical Society
(April 21, 2007, Boston, MA)
- The New England Regional Genealogical Consortium Conference
(April 26-29, 2007, Hartford, CT)