I recently read a few books that examine our individual and collective fascination with genealogy. At our house, we talk often about our ancestors and what we know or don’t know. Our son decided yesterday to start filming his dad when these discussions happen. Because one challenge of genealogy is lost family knowledge. And the adventure of connecting what we know with what we don’t is a popular hobby.

Memoir and veneration

Maud Newton considers this genealogy obsession in her recent book, Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation. As she discusses her family history—both maternal and paternal, she discusses the feelings her research evokes. While Newton shares her genealogical journey, she also examines the phenomenon itself.

Looking deeply into the Southern roots of each parent meant Newton confronted hard facts. She found evidence that various family members enslaved other humans. She also found incidences of mental illness, adultery, and even accusations of murder. For her, this isn’t a light and breezy weekend hobby.

On the other hand, many people discover only the most boring facts about their ancestors. But finding factual evidence of these persistent family legends and rumors wasn’t easy for Newton. Not only did it take some digging, but she felt pretty awful about it.

Reconciling these two aspects of her “harmless” hobby, led Newton to investigate ancestor veneration practices. This combines spiritual ritual with ancestral history and is designed to heal the way you feel about your long-dead family. Taken to the fullest extent, the work is also intended to allow the spirits of the dead to heal.

Genetics and history

While Newton ultimately looks toward more emotional aspects of her genealogy, Bryan Sykes instead focuses on science and genetics. His book, Saxons, Vikings, and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland, published in 2006, explains and examines his extensive research.

His team took thousands of cheek swabs from folks all over the British Isles. The goal was to find where the genetics of conquering populations like Saxons and Vikings is strongest in the area. Conversely, the team also searched for genetics related to the islands’ indigenous populations, the Picts and Celts. In that work, Sykes attempts to determine if they really are indigenous.

This book is considerably less personal than Newton’s, although Sykes shares his various data-gathering strategies. Mostly it borders on the academic, with a drier tone and heavier focus on statistics and analysis. Still, it’s an interesting question for genealogists with roots in the British Isles—Britain, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.

My conclusions

Both books were challenging to read, for very different reasons. Newton balances her chapters between the personal and more universal, which makes them more readable. Still, as much as I liked her, I wasn’t a fan of any other family member except her Granny. This is a perfect illustration of family research, though. You must persist even if you’re digging up the despicable details of your third great grandfather.

I admire Newton’s honest attempts to address her cringe-worthy ancestors. Everyone’s family tree has someone whose actions we now see as illegal or immoral. And Newton mixes these stories with an honest and vulnerable exploration of her own childhood. These moments make the slower parts worth all the trouble.

On the other hand, Sykes never attempts to balance his scientific information with personal details. This is entirely a book about explaining genetics from a fairly small corner of the world. I also appreciated the detailed explanations of various types of DNA and DNA tests. We now focus on autosomal DNA, but Y-DNA and mitochondrial DNA are also key elements. Sykes does his best to make it approachable, but I often put the book down and struggled to re-engage later.

If you’re a serious genealogical researcher, both of these books offer ideas and information you’ll appreciate. Persist through them and you’ll be glad you did. However, casual hobbyists might find them a bit too dry.

Further reading

Sykes wrote another book, The Seven Daughters of Eve, about how he divides DNA throughout the world into categories of descendants. His theory is that there are seven “mothers” for all of us, based on DNA patterns. I know it won’t be an easy read, but that idea also fascinates me. So I’ll pursue it despite the challenge.

I’m looking forward to pairing this investigation with another book that focuses more on the medical aspects of DNA, The Genome Odyssey: Medical Mysteries and the Incredible Quest to Solve Them by Euan Angus Ashley.

Another pairing suggestion is The Lost Family: How DNA Testing Is Uncovering Secrets, Reuniting Relatives, and Upending Who We Are by Libby Copeland. This one is far more narrative and gripping than Newton’s or Sykes’s books.