Adventures in Discovering News-Making Connections, Unexpected Ancestors, Long-Hidden Secrets, and Solving Historical Puzzles
Review posted 1/15/15.
Citadel Press, 2012. 256 pages.
2014 Sonderbooks Standout: #8 Nonfiction
I’ve gotten the genealogy bug since I came to work at City of Fairfax Regional Library, where I get to substitute fairly frequently at the information desk in the Virginia Room. I think it’s fascinating to find out about my ancestors, about where they lived and what they did and which fought in wars and when they came to America.
Megan Smolenyak takes genealogy so much further than all that. She shows its tremendous scope. The subtitle begins to give you an idea, but even with those hints, I wasn’t prepared for the wide variety of stories she tells in this book.
I’m going to quote at length from her Introduction, because it gives you a good idea of what you’ll find in this book:
I’m one of those obnoxious people you hear about from time to time who has the privilege of making a living doing what she loves. As a real-life history detective, I wake up excited every day about what I’m going to tackle and what I might uncover.
In this book, I’d like to take you into my world and essentially perch you on my shoulder to see how it’s done. How did I figure out who would be king of America today if George Washington had been king instead of president? How did I come to work with the FBI and NCIS on cold cases and with coroners’ offices to find relatives of unclaimed people? How did I unravel the mystery of a Hebrew-inscribed tombstone found on the streets of Manhattan? How did I successfully trace Michelle Obama’s roots when others had tried but gotten roadblocked early on? How did I research Hoda Kotb’s Egyptian heritage in no time flat for a Today show appearance? How did I use DNA to learn that the Haley family of Roots fame is Scottish?
This book includes more than twenty of my favorite investigatory romps, all of which extended my understanding of our history in some way. Following the path of a Bible that traded hands during the Civil War gave me a fresh perspective from both the Confederate and Union viewpoints. My first case with the FBI was an in-your-face education about the civil rights movement. And pursuing the real Annie Moore, first to arrive at Ellis Island (whose place had been usurped by an imposter), informed my understanding of the tenement life so many of our immigrant ancestors endured.
Given my proclivity for resurrecting the historically neglected, it’s no accident that many of the chapters in this book feature women and African Americans – both harder to research, but all the more rewarding because of it. So I’ll introduce you to everyone from Mabel Cavin Sills Leish Whitworth Davis, a partially paralyzed prostitute (yes, you read that right) who taught me about the realities of life in a Western mining community, to Philip Reed, the slave behind the installment of the Freedom statue on top of the Capitol dome.
Along the way, you’ll also find a healthy dose of my opinions, so consider yourself forewarned if you still believe your name was changed at Ellis Island!
It is my hope that by the end of this book, you will find yourself looking at some aspect of our history a little differently than you did at the outset – and better yet, feel compelled to reach into the past and contribute a few pixels yourself. It’s high time for all of us to let our roots show!
Who knew that a book on genealogy would read so much like a book of detective stories? I was amazed by how entertaining Megan Smolenyak made these stories, as well as the wide scope of them. She talks about identifying remains of missing soldiers in Vietnam, finding serial centenarians in a family, showing how all of us have some famous cousins, and tracing Barack O’Bama’s Irish roots, besides all the stories she hints at in the Introduction.
I took a long time to read this book, because it is like a book of short stories. But I was entertained and enchanted with each story, and indeed all the more curious about the past of my own family.