The Book Quest Continues, by Megan Smolenyak

Wow!  Who knew there were so many terrific books out there with a genealogical theme?  A thousand thank you’s to all of you who posted recommendations or emailed me with suggestions after my last article (!  Looks as if I have a homework assignment that could last for life!

I haven’t yet had a chance to go on one of my book-buying binges with the shopping list you all contributed (don’t worry – I’m going to “force” myself to snag some soon!), so I hope you can tolerate another article with a couple of books from my current stash.  Once again, I’ve decided on a pair of non-fiction books with something of a genealogical theme.

The DNA Detectives
I admit that this one caught my eye because it had a very similar title to the one I had originally planned for Trace Your Roots with DNA.  And by the way, let me be very clear that I’m talking about the book by Anna Meyer whose full title is The DNA Detectives: How the Double Helix is Solving Puzzles of the Past.  I emphasize this because there’s a self-published book that starts with the same phrase, so I don’t want there to be any confusion.

Anna Meyer, who recently obtained her PhD at the Australian National University’s Centre for The Public Awareness of Science, doesn’t write like a scientist.  And that’s what I loved about this book.  It made me feel smart because I could understand it!  And while I’m not entirely clueless about DNA, I’m not a science whiz either.  Anyone could understand the stories in this book.

In fact, that’s the way it reads.  Meyer relays a series of stories about how DNA has been used to solve age-old mysteries–everything from the Neanderthals (were they our ancestors?) to the Romanovs (was that old woman really Anastasia?).  Ever wonder if Jurassic Park could really happen, whether we could really clone dinosaurs?  Wonder no more.  She’s got the answer.  Want to know if Louis XVII of France really died in the tower?  You could read Deborah Cadbury’s The Lost King of France: Revolution, Revenge and the Search for Louis XVII (incidentally, also an excellent book), but you can get the digest version in Meyer’s book.  Perhaps just enough to help you decide whether to read Cadbury’s.

If you’re already into genetealogy (my word for genetic genealogy), it’s a given that you’ll enjoy this book, but even those who are just contemplating it would benefit from this one.  You’ll end up absorbing some of the underlying science without even realizing it because it’s cleverly disguised as storytime!

Cemetery Walk
I thought I loved cemeteries, but Minda Powers-Douglas has me beat.  In fact, I’m such an amateur that until I read her Cemetery Walk: A Journey into the Art, History and Society of the Cemetery and Beyond, I had no clue what a taphophile was.  But I’ll bet Powers-Douglas’s picture appears in the dictionary as part of the definition.  And get this-she loves cemeteries just for cemeteries.  She doesn’t even care if any of her ancestors are buried there.

The book is just what the title suggests.  She meanders through all topics of a cemetery nature including profiles of fellow taphophiles, photographers who specialize in tombstones and graveyards, mourning traditions, and the Museum of Funeral Customs. Check out their online shop ( if you’ve had a hard time finding those milk chocolate coffins you’ve been looking for.  And as a bonus for hardcore genealogists, she even has an interview with Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, author of Your Guide to Cemetery Research. 

Powers-Douglas does all of this with a light-hearted tone that makes you feel as if you’re sitting beside her in the car along for one of her cemetery field trips (and yes, she at least partly builds her vacations around cemeteries).  It’s one of those easy reads you can swallow whole or dip into whenever or wherever you’d like.

Time to Shop
It’s true that I already have a long shopping list of books, but I’d like to encourage everyone to keep posting about other books your think I (or anyone else) should read.  Many of the books recommended focus on a specific location or ethnicity and you just never know when another reader will spot your comment about just the perfect book for them.  So keep on posting!

Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak, co-author (with Ann Turner) of Trace Your Roots with DNA: Using Genetic Tests to Explore Your Family Tree (as well as In Search of Our Ancestors, Honoring Our Ancestors and They Came to America), can be contacted through,, and,

Upcoming Events Where Megan Will Be Speaking

  • 13 February 2007,  Haddonfield, NJ
    Haddon Fortnightly – “Cases that Made My Brain Hurt”
  • 24 February 2007, St. Charles, IL
    DuPage County Genealogy Society Conference
  • 17 March 2007, Baltimore, MD
    Enoch Pratt Free Library ( 10:30 a.m.Wheeler Auditorium, 400 Cathedral St., Baltimore, MD

Details and links to upcoming events

12 thoughts on “The Book Quest Continues, by Megan Smolenyak

  1. I have been hunting for a book. It has maps of all of the historical changes to the colonys, states, and counties in what is now the US, Any ideas?
    Chuck Nelson

  2. Am very interested in the colonial and revolutionary time periods. To place your ancestors in the culture, the following books are most interesting.
    “Creating the Commonwealth, The Economic Culture of Puritan New England”, Stephen Innes; “Everyday Life in Early America”, David Freeman Hawke; “The Old Revolutionaries”, Pauline Maier; “Making Patriots”, Walter Berns.

  3. Thanks so much for your review of my book, your kind words are much appreciated, and I’m glad you enjoyed reading it! Anna Meyer

  4. What book would I find this verse that helps one to remember the correct order of the Presidents of the U.S.?
    “Will A Jolly Man Make A Jolly Visitor…How Terribly Poor The French Paper Boy Looks”
    Each of the first letters of the verse are the same as the first letter of the President’s name.
    I don’t know the rest of the verse but I can recite the first fifteen Presidents by memory.
    It was taught in the elementary schools in the western portion of PA.

  5. A book I am currently reading is Young Men and the Sea: Yankee Seafarers in the Age of Sail by Daniel Vickers. It is the story of seafaring in Salem, MA, beginning with the earliest settlement. It includes some info of genealogical interest, but is mainly historical. As Vickers points out, most of the early settlers were not mariners, but the new land forced them to take to the sea to transport goods from one place to another before inland roads were developed. His statistics on the number of deaths related to seafaring may help you to understand where some of those relatives disappeared to. Vickers has clearly spent a lot of time in the Peabody Essex Museum poring over old journals and ships logs. If you have ancestors who were New England mariners, you should take a look at this book.
    Vickers is also the author of Farmers and Fishermen: Two Centuries of Work in Essex County, Massachusetts, 1630-1850.

  6. Mr. Nelson, try these books:

    Township Atlas of the United States by Jay Andriot
    Place-name Changes 1900-1991 compiled by Adrian Room
    American Place Names of Long Ago by Gilbert S. Bahn

    They should be available through your local library or inter-loan. Karen T

  7. I am looking for a book about a murder on Navajo land in the Carriso Mountains. That would be on the Northern Arizona/New Mexico border. A Navajo man is accused and convicted of murdering a white man who sneaks onto tribal land to mine for gold. The Navajo’s English name is Nicholas. He is sent to a federal prison. The time period would be about 1880.

    Has anyone heard of a book or books about this? The Title may have the name Sun in it, the Sun rises, or sets or something to do with the sun in the tittle.

  8. Re: Books with genealogical themes

    In case you haven’t already seen it, I would like to suggest
    A TALE OF LOVE AND DARKNESS by Amos Oz. The book traces his family history from Europe to Jersalem and Kibbutz Hulda. A book which he wrote as he what he thought would be a personal, obscure autobiography of interest to only a few people with roots in Jerusalem turned out to be a worldwide bestseller which has been translated into approx. 25 languages.

    Much of the research was done by his late uncle a professor of history.

  9. To learn about the role of women in the South (VA), the best I’ve seen is “Free women of Petersburg: Status and culture in a Southern Town 1784-1860”
    This is a Bancroft Award winning book.
    There are details on how women handled their money: spending, investing and bequeathing. I think a good companion volume would be all the notes and transcriptions from the courthouse records.

  10. I recently finished the historical mystery, “The Lost German Slave Girl” by John Bailey. It reads like fiction, but is actually the well-researched true story of the trial of a young woman in 1840s New Orleans. The young woman was a slave, and the story revolves around the question of her true identity. Was she truly a light-skinned Negro girl, and thus legally a slave? Or was she, as many suspected, Salome Muller, a German girl who immigrated to Louisiana as a toddler, was orphaned along with her sister, and subsequently sold into slavery? Many believed the slave girl to be the adult Salome, and fought for her freedom, because a white German girl could never be a slave.

    While the author reports the results of the trial, and convincingly states his opinion of the true identity of the slave girl, the mystery remains unresolved to this day. As you read the book with a genealogist’s eye, you will notice that there are many female relatives in this excellent story, and a good genealogist should be able to find their mitochondrial descendants today. A couple of carefully selected mt-dna tests could finally lay this mystery to rest.

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