Libby Copeland considers all the ways consumer DNA testing has changed our lives in The Lost Family: How DNA Testing is Uncovering Secrets, Reuniting Relatives, and Upending Who We Are. She interviews scientists, career genealogists, ethicists, and lots of regular folks caught up in unexpected situations. It’s that last category that propels this book forward since test results surprise plenty of people.
Of course, DNA testing is now a staple of the adopted child seeking their birth parents. But it also turns up relationships between sperm donors and the children their donation created. And in either situation, the seeker (on either side) isn’t guaranteed a happy response. Copeland’s stories of birth parents turning away the children they put up for adoption are particularly heartbreaking.
But what if you’re just an early adopter, convinced you’re 100% Irish and take an early DNA on a lark? That’s what Alice Collins Plebuch did. To her great amazement, her DNA was 50% Irish and 50% Ashkenazi Jew. Copeland follows Alice’s unique quest for answers through nearly a decade of searching.
Because Plebuch took such an early test, her experience is different from someone who tests today. She hunted through a plethora of documents, reached out to potential cousins all over the world, and refused to give up until she solved the mystery. Today, her mystery might be solved in less than 24 hours. Copeland explains why.
Copeland also addresses the philosophical and ethical aspects of these DNA and identity journeys. These discussions are deep and thought-provoking, even if you’ve never made a family tree.
This is my favorite kind of nonfiction—packed with detailed information but told in a conversational, fast-paced way. And, as I’ve mentioned before, our household dinner conversations often discuss our genealogical research. So, for me, The Lost Family was a win many times over.
Copeland addresses every aspect of this trending hobby. She moves seamlessly from science to personal stories to consumer marketing practices. And she continually reminds the reader that the field of consumer DNA testing changes regularly. This is a well-rounded and fascinating conversation about an evolving field.
Of course, studying our family tree and genealogy isn’t a new hobby. I remember my childhood neighbors visiting old graveyards in Europe to make gravestone rubbings. That’s a dying hobby, as we now just consult websites where strangers post family gravestones for our perusal. This is part of Copeland’s point. Still, the desire to know ourselves through knowing our ancestors is well-rooted in the human psyche. It’s just been upended by the advent of readily accessible DNA testing.
The Lost Family is one of my favorite 2022 books, even though the year is still young. If you appreciate family history, with a strong dose of science and real-life mysteries, you will love this book. Libby Copeland builds a compelling nonfiction narrative.
Pair with a fictional story that discusses race, identity, and a little genetics, The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, as I did. Or try Paula: A Memoir by Isabel Allende, which is more about family history and secrets than DNA itself.