This book was such an enticing premise and clearly a passionate endeavour on the part of the author, who spent years researching her family and understanding the modern tools available through AncestryDNA and 23andMe that I couldn’t wait to read it and started it immediately it arrived in my letterbox.
A Hobby Becomes an Obsession
To a large extent, it was the Mormons who made the larger-scale practice of genealogy among Americans possible. Over time, to achieve its mandate of baptizing all forbears of Mormons, the LDS has collected records from a vast and ever-increasing number of populations, converted them into millions of reels of microfilm and microfiche, and stored them in a massive climate-controlled vault carved out of the Granite Mountains of Utah.
The internet and the rise in popularity of DNA testing transformed genealogy into the mainstream hobby – come obsession, it has become today, with sophisticated tools and avenues of research that can make it a compelling pursuit.
With all the tools at their disposal, contemporary genealogists can test rumours passed down like pocketknives. They can also rebut lies, expose secrets, and heal fractures.
DNA and Family Trees, the secrets they reveal
This work of nonfiction is both the author’s personal project and an exploration of the meaning of genetic genealogy, of observations of ancestor behaviour and achievements, their inclinations and attitudes, their better moments and worst traits. Her desire to know what is inherited versus what is learned and the implications that has on her own character, drives her forward.
Maud Newton explores society’s experiments with eugenics and ponders her own father’s marriage, a choice he made based on trying to create “smart kids”. She delves into persecuted women, including a female relative accused of being a witch, and discovers a clear line of personality inclinations that have born down the female line of her family.
Maud Newton (the name a pseudonym inspired by one of her relatives) is both curious and wary. Curious to know who these people were and whether there was any connection to the way her own personality had manifested in this world and wary of the darker aspects she was aware of and had uncovered. Those present in her father, (from whom she was estranged), and that of the plantation and slave owning ancestors she was descended from.
To understand ourselves, Carl Jung argued, we need to understand our ancestors. “Our souls as well as our bodies are composed of individual elements which were all already present in the ranks of our ancestors,” he wrote in his autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections. “The ‘newness’ in the individual psyche is an endlessly varied re-combination of age-old components…The less we understand of what our fathers and forefathers sought, the less we understand ourselves.
Nature versus Nurture
Exploring the concept of nature versus nurture, Newton studied their faces and read of their ailments, looking for physical resemblance and a possible forecast of health parameters that might need to have been monitored. This is something that DNA companies have dabbled with in the past, a subject that has created controversy as people make decisions about their health based on speculative, not always reliable genetic information; creating databases that insurance companies would pay handsomely for.
The genes we inherit from our ancestors have a lot to do with the odors we give off. It’s even possible that newborns recognize their own biological mothers by scent and that mothers can identify their biological newborns the same way.
One of the most incredible aspects of the DNA results, was how many times her profile has changed over the years and how extreme the changes were, making one wonder what is real and what is a fiction, as the databases are added to over time, causing everyone’s results to constantly adjust significantly.
An Open-Minded Approach
In the end, having explored all the archives, the registry’s, the DNA results and her own observations and those of her living relatives, she takes a more open minded, imaginative route. Attending an “ancestral lineage healing intensive” workshop/retreat in North Carolina, she meets others interested in connecting with their ancestors and learns of age old ceremonies that had been long forgotten in some cultures, traditions that are beginning to be revived. She is open enough to it, to have had an interesting experience, which was likely to have been healing in some way.
At times there was a lot of family detail, but it’s written in a way that kept me captivated while reading. I appreciated the depth which with she explained how to get the most of DNA information, the risks of obsessing about it and the number of extended family one is likely to encounter. I particularly enjoyed the more spiritual journey she took at the end and the dedication with which the project was realized.
An excellent and informative read. Highly Recommended and a great festive read or gift.
In ‘Ancestor Trouble,’ Maud Newton wrestles with her family history – review by Kristen Martin, NPR
From Family Trees to 23andMe, and Back Again – review by Kerri Arsenault, New York Times