You don’t have to be a private eye to enjoy
a good detective novel. And you don’t have
to be a practicing genealogist to enjoy the
sleuthing of Megan Smolenyak, who is Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson rolled into one.
She traces family trees and then writes, most
engagingly, about them.
In her new book, Hey, America, Your Roots
Are Showing, just out from Citadel Press,
Smolenyak leads the reader through a slew
of good mysteries. Not into genealogy? Pick
up Smolenyak for 15 minutes and you might
change your mind.
Take the case of Alex Haley, the
writer of Roots, a novel and a wildly
popular TV miniseries that tracked
the history of one African-American.
No surprise that the late Haley had
ancestors in Africa (he was African-American), but it turns out he also
had a big line of relatives in England,
discovered only recently through DNA
testing and the work of an inquisitive
relative newly exposed to the delights
of tracing her roots. The story was
all the rage on the BBC. (Smolenyak
with a first-rate detective
frequently appears on television and is sched-
uled to appear on NBC and PBS in May.)
Family Bibles are a rich resource for genealogists because names, births and deaths frequently were recorded in them. One old copy
Smolenyak sleuthed, published in 1846, led
her on a gripping ride through the Civil War,
on to a deadly steamship disaster and through
ownership of the Bible by two di;erent families, one in the South and one in the North.
Smolenyak’s latest book, her sixth on the
topic of genealogy research, is organized in
more-or-less free-standing chapters, so the
reader can flip around. One engaging chapter
focuses on the Rev. Al Sharpton’s discovery,
thanks to Smolenyak, that he is related to the
late Strom Thurmond.
Anyone whose ancestors came to America
early on likely will be related to many present-day people. President Obama’s father
was from Kenya, but his mother’s family goes
way back in this country. So, when the story
of his relationship to Brad Pitt came out, it
was no surprise to Smolenyak. If you go back
far enough, she says, we’re all related.
—Greg G. Weber