Feeling Bookish, by Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak

generations of somerset place.jpgWinter is a great time to read, isn’t it? Not that there’s any time of year that’s not appropriate for reading, but there’s just something about curling up with a good book when it’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 D’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:

“Every 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.”

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, there’s the matter that no less than Alex Haley proclaimed, “Dorothy’s study is the best, most beautifully researched, and most thoroughly presented black family history that I know of.”

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. It’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 what’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 client’s family has plenty of secrets that they’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. It’s easy to get pulled into this one.

So what’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 let’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 “menopause baby.” Hmmm . . .

And let’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, what’s wrong with this excerpt?

“If she shows the Senator’s Y-DNA, then the Senator was her father. It’s that simple.”

No, it’s not that simple. Women don’t have Y-DNA. And that’s probably the first thing you learn when you get into what I like to call “genetealogy.”

In fact, for anyone with even a passing acquaintance with DNA, the last fifty pages of the book are utterly confusing because of the writer’s confusion. As best as I can tell, she’s got Y-DNA (the kind that’s passed paternally) and mtDNA (the kind that’s passed mostly maternally) muddled in her brain, and that results in a series of nonsensical passages. For those who haven’t played with DNA, it’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 “check your brain at the door” situation. And I’ll be the first to admit that I’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, it’s a good idea to master the basics of that reality.

Don’t get me wrong. This is one of the best-written novels I’ve seen with a genealogist in the central role, but maybe that’s why I’m so sensitive to its shortcomings. It’s the kind of book that makes me wonder how magical it could have been if the writer had done her homework.

Here’s where I invite you to feed my habit! If this is the first you’re hearing about my genealogical reading quest, you might want to check out some earlier articles:

I’ve got a stash of earlier suggestions to read, but I’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 “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 http://rootstelevision.com/blogs/megans-rootsworld.html, http://www.honoringourancestors.com, and http://www.genetealogy.com.

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6 thoughts on “Feeling Bookish, by Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak

  1. I recommend “Death on the Family Tree” by Patricia Sprinkle. Not only does is ease the protagonist into believable and generally accurate genealogical research, but it also manages to introduce a very sympathetic and realistic character with whom you’d like to have coffee and head for the microfilm room! Not graphic, but a little more involved than most cozies, perhaps. Beautifully done, imho, can’t wait for the next in this series!

  2. I have the 1989 edition of “Somerset Homecoming” and highly recommend it to anyone who loves a great read. Mrs. Redford didn’t know beans about genealogy, yet managed to accurately chart the lineage of hundred of slaves of Somerset Place, first through censuses and farther back, using bills of sale. That she accomplished this without a computer or the internet is a testament to her determination to put names and faces on otherwise-invisible souls. The book will make you laugh and cry…and cheer out loud when she becomes director of the site she knows better than anyone else alive. Definitely not a dry or boring family history!

  3. “A Most Dreadful Earthquake – A First-Hand Account of the 1906 Earthquake and Fire – with Glimpses into the Lives of the Phillips-Jones Letter Writers” by Dorothy Fowler fits the bill if you are looking for a perfect blend of history, genealogy and storytelling. The California Genealogical Society published it last year to coincide with the centennial of the 1906 quake, after a packet of 100 year-old yellowed letters was found in a misplaced box after the society moved. A volunteer researcher and wonderful writer, Fowler, couldn’t rest until she found out all she could about Sarah, whose letters transport us back in time. The book nicely details the skill, luck and perseverance needed to piece together a genealogical puzzle.

  4. Albion’s Seed (historical sociology) by David Hackett Fischer links four specific British-American family cultures to their roots in England.

    Deborah Woodworth’s six Shaker mysteries (fiction) provide much insight into the Shaker culture, and its disappearance, within the context of murder mysteries.

  5. For anyone who has ancestors who migrated into western PA, early KY or OH, I highly recommend a book I’m currently reading called “The Frontiersman,” by Allan Eckert. It is a factual study of Simon Kenton’s life, written in novel form. You may or may not have relatives mentioned in it (and there are hundreds of names of individuals who interacted with Kenton, Boone, and their contemporaries who might not be mentioned in most history books but are included here), but if you want to have a vividly clear idea of the hardships faced by our ancestors as they carved a nation out of the wilderness, this will blow you away. The book is full of detail, painstakingly researched, but written in such a manner that reading it is as absorbing as reading any modern thriller. If you can’t find the book at your local library or bookstore, try searching online (Amazon had several copies available).

  6. I have not read the book you are referring to but as you may know there are a few unusual women carrying a Y chromosome and they may or not be polychromosomes.
    Check “The curse of Adam” and/or “The descent of men”.

    Live well.

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