May 15, 2011

Book Review: Shaking the Family Tree

Shaking the Family Tree: Blue Bloods, Black Sheep, and Other Obsessions of an Accidental GenealogistI couldn't fit another big genealogy conference into the budget, so I'm following NGS vicariously through other blogs. It seems one of the highlights of the first day was a keynote by Buzzy Jackson, author of Shaking the Family Tree: Blue Bloods, Black Sheep, and Other Obsessions of an Accidental Genealogist. (See here, here, or here.) I read the book last year, so I'll write a brief review for those who didn't get a chance to hear her talk. (I meant to post this earlier, but the Blogger outage prevented it. At least it gave me some time to refresh my memory.)

She describes herself as an accidental genealogist, which is exactly how I found her book–accidentally. I was browsing the paltry selection of genealogy books at a Barnes & Noble, which mostly consists of "reference" books with URLs for genealogy websites. You know, the kind of book that's already obsolete the minute it's printed. I wasn't looking for anything specific, and the blurb on the back sounded interesting. Plus, she wrote a whole chapter on DNA testing, which I was then contemplating myself.

Shaking the Family Tree isn't a published genealogy, or anything like a traditional family history book. Nor is it a genealogy how-to book. But in the process of telling her story about getting involved in genealogy, she imparts quite a bit of her family history, and weaves in plenty of tips and tricks for the beginning genealogist. It's a light, quick read, and flows very well. I read it in just a few sittings over the course of a weekend.

When Jackson decided to start researching her family history, she dove right in, and hit the ground running (I know I'm mixing metaphors). Right away, she joined a local genealogical society–something I didn't do until I had years of research under my belt. Then she does the standard first steps of interviewing family, finding sources close at hand, etc. Next, she shows how committed she is to the pursuit, by going on a genealogy cruise. Probably not common among beginning genealogists, but it allows her to attend lectures from many of the luminaries of the genealogy world. Later, she takes a genealogy roadtrip with a cousin, and makes the obligatory pilgrimage to research at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City.

The chapter on DNA is a great introduction to genetic genealogy. She covers all the bases: the science and technology of testing, possible medical implications, and even race and identity issues. Unfamiliar words are explained in terms the non-scientist will understand. The DNA sample provided by her father matched others in the Jackson surname DNA project, which ultimately led to a previously unknown cousin and a well-documented family tree for that line back to the 17th century! While I haven't had nearly the success she did, I love reading stories how DNA can complement traditional genealogical methods. I still highly recommend Smolenyak and Turner's book, but the chapter in this book is more than enough if you're not planning on starting your own surname project.

Overall, it's a well-written, fun book about her experience as a newcomer to genealogy. Admittedly, she was very well prepared to do genealogical research. She has a PhD in American history from a top-tier university (UC Berkeley), and already wrote one book (an adaptation of her dissertation on women blues singers). But Shaking the Family Tree isn't dense or dry, like many books by academics. The tone and substance almost remind me of reading good genealogy blogs, except with an overarching, coherent structure. If you like reading how others became interested in genealogy, and the journey that followed, you'll enjoy this book.

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