Book Review: Family history how-to ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ goes beyond TV

wdytyaIn “Who Do You Think You Are: The Essential Guide to Tracing Your Family History,” genealogist to the president and others Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak takes readers on a genealogical journey, breaking down the basics of vital statistics, the U.S. census, family interviews and other types of research in a breezy way that makes facts and figures lively. Her tone is cheerful and reflects her love of the craft. She may walk among us, but you can tell she loves no place better than the stacks of the local history room at the library.

She shares her own journeys into the past, from the family reunions with cousins heretofore unknown, and those of others. Her story of tracking the true Annie Moore, first passenger to arrive at Ellis Island, is a don’t-miss.

Smolenyak (yes, she has two of the same last names, itself its own story) has incorporated personal history into her daily life, with framed pedigree charts and ancestors’ names ringing the walls of her dining room like a wallpaper border. Amid an extensive how-to for family historians, she shares inspiration about how to get the family history out of the computer and into the quotidian experience.

This is a great primer for experienced and would-be family historians. If you’ve considered researching or merely dabbled, her prose will make you want to dive deeper. If you’re an experienced researcher, you still can pick up useful hints.

For those who are drawn to the book because of the TLC television program, a center-section on glossy paper shares the genealogical journeys from the show of famous guests including Matthew Broderick. Some of the subjects of the TLC program of the same name and their own journeys into their families’ pasts are revealed. It’s a fast read that you’ll want to read a second time just to give those research tips a whirl, sticky tabs in hand to mark passages you’ll refer to again and again.

Book Review: ‘My Confederate Kinfolk, A Twenty-First Century Freedwoman Discovers Her Roots’

ConfederateKinfolkThulani Davis inherited the writer’s gene and two photo albums from her grandmother Georgia Curry: one with photographs of white ancestors, the other with photographs of black ancestors.

Through the Library of Congress and in cotton fields across the South, through slave inventories and personal family letters, Davis retraces her family history, finding records of her slave and slaveholding ancestors to follow their steps from prior to the Civil War, through the conflict itself, into Reconstruction and beyond. The result is “My Confederate Kinfolk: A Twenty-First Century Freedwoman Discovers Her Roots,” a family history novel that tells the stories behind the photographs.

Where Alex Haley’s “Roots” told the story of Kunta Kinte, Kizzy and Chicken George, Davis explores Chloe Curry, William Argyle Campbell and “Chloe’s White Child,” her own grandmother, Georgia Campbell. The names can get a bit confusing, but the family trees help the reader place the who’s who. Davis, a journalist, discovers the origin of her surname, of her hairline, of the writing tradition in her female forebears.

Davis’ research is thorough and her telling of the tale personal and touching. Through the lens of her own family, she reveals the tale of two Americas.

A must-read for lovers of history and family.