August 21, 2020
After nearly six months spending most of my time at home, I’m rapidly arriving at a point that I thought would be impossible: I’m actually losing my motivation to do genealogy. It’s not that I’m not interested in finding out more about some of my long lost ancestors. I’m still as focused as ever on figuring out who the parents of my third great grandmother were. There are still a lot of seminars on genealogical topics that I’d like to attend to help me gain the skills to better search for said ancestors. For me, the big problem right now is that there is only so much time I can stand to spend in front of my computer. While I’m very grateful that I can do vast amounts of research from home and that there are legions of online webinars and seminars that I can virtually attend to improve my skills, it’s just not the same as meeting in person with other genealogists at our local genealogical society or going on a research trip to a repository in another state or country, not to mention the excitement of attending an in-person institute in Salt Lake City or Pittsburgh or getting the opportunity to wander through the exhibit hall at a national genealogical conference.
Since none of those in-person interactions are likely to be possible for the near future, I realized that I needed to do something different to help me reclaim my zest for genealogy. Like many genealogists, I’m an avid reader, so I’ve turned to books to give myself a bit of a break from “real” genealogy. There are lots of books about various aspects of genealogy, but the last few years there has been an abundance of titles about DNA and its impact on individuals and society. Lately, I’ve been reading a number of them. While not quite the same as talking in person with someone about their genealogy, the books at least give me a glimpse into someone else’s journey into their own history and are a change of pace from my usual research.
I thought I’d share a few titles that I’ve been reading recently. Some of them are better written than others, but all share the same theme: the search for who we are based on our personal history. Some describe the point of view of someone who is searching for his/her biological parents; others recount the story of someone who took a DNA test merely to find out their ethnicity, only to discover that who he/she thought they were was not at all who they are biologically.
Two titles that came out several years ago are still among the best of the books that I think of as “DNA Shockers,” stories of someone’s discovery of a heretofore unknown parent uncovered by the surprising results of a DNA test taken either as part of a genealogical search or merely on a whim. The Stranger in My Genes: A Memoir by Bill Griffeth is the story of well-known television personality who discovered, in late middle age, that the man who had raised him was not his biological father. The book describes the major upheaval that this caused in his life, causing him to re-evaluate his relationship with his mother as well as his place in his family. It’s very well written and definitely worth reading.
Another book that came out a few years ago is Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity and Love by Dani Shapiro. In this case, a recreational DNA test led her to the discovery that her father was not her biological father and that she was conceived via artificial insemination using donor sperm. Both this book and Bill Griffeth’s read like detective stories and keep the reader anxious to find out what happens next.
Several newer books are also DNA focused. The Lost Family: How DNA Testing is Upending who We Are by Libby Copeland and A Broken Tree: How DNA Exposed a Family’s Secrets by Stephen F. Anderson are both fascinating. Copeland’s book is not her own story but is a description of how taking a DNA test on a lark can upend who we think we are. The main story she tells is about a man named Jim Collins who was born in 1911 in Brooklyn, New York, into an Irish-American family. Through DNA testing, his descendants learn that he and another baby were switched accidentally in the hospital soon after birth. Jim then lived his entire life believing he was Irish, but he was actually of Ashkenazi Jewish descent.
Anderson’s book is probably one of the most shocking of this type of book that I’ve read. Anderson is a professional genealogist who took a DNA test expecting it to confirm what his research had revealed about his ancestry. Instead, it revealed that he was not his father’s biological son and led him to the discovery that none of his eight siblings were that man’s children either. Again, this book reads like a mystery and shows the shock that unexpected DNA results can cause in a family.
All four of these books are worth reading, and they’re all available from Amazon either in book form or as an ebook. They’re also available from most libraries. If you’re looking for an end-of-summer break, any of these books are page turners that provide food for thought. While not directly genealogy books, they’re definitely “genealogy related.”
Researcher/Director at Large