Genetic Genealogy Fiction

Aloha from my Hawaii cruise. Apologies to all of you for not getting any blogging or work done while at sea. My brain kept telling me I was on vacation!

One thing I like to do when cruising is to read fiction by the pool or at night. My new favorite mystery author is Nathan Dylan Goodwin who has a series about a forensic genealogist as well as a wonderful new series about a fictional genetic genealogy company called Venator.

I read the second Venator book first, The Sawtooth Slayer, which Nathan was kind enough to send me for a review. It stood up well, even though out of sequence. I then lent it to a friend who is neither a genealogist nor a DNA tester to see if it was an enjoyable read for her and others like her. She really liked it! She told me that now she is interested in doing her family history and maybe even a DNA test! So by all means give this to any friend who is interested in understanding what we do.

Next I had to get the first book, which I really liked also. The characters were particularly engaging. Then of course I started working my way through his other series, which is more genealogy based but still quite enjoyable.

Kitty drinking coffee at Kona Joe’s on the big Island near Kona

A Reading List to Stay at Home With

Since you are all carefully practicing social distancing in order to do your part to slow this pandemic, I put together some DNA focused reading recommendations. I am very grateful to my kindle app which makes it easy to get books.

My favorite new book about DNA and genealogy is The Lost Family: How DNA Testing is Upending Who We Are by Libby Copeland which is as suitable for your less addicted family members as it is for you, my fellow seekers. I like the term seeker that Libby uses for those of us who are loving using DNA for solving family mysteries and genealogy puzzles. At the end of this article I have some notes about Libby’s own family discoveries from my interview with her.

Streaming movies is another way to stay in. You might watch the 2011 movie Contagion again. Click here for the NPR fact checking of it. In summary, except for the speed of a vaccine being developed, it is quite accurate. Thank goodness COVID-19 is not as lethal as the virus in the movie.

Here is more detail about each of the books I recommend.

The Lost Family weaves the Alice Plebuch story though out the entire book, a clever mechanism to keep your interest. It includes the very modern history of genetic genealogy interspersed with many stories of people discovering DNA surprises such as Daddy was not biological. From the cover flap comes this very apt quote: the book explores “what happens when we embark on a vast social experiment with little understanding of the ramifications.” Libby is an excellent writer and story teller. I found her book captivating.

The other books I have read recently about DNA are enjoyable for me, a DNA junkie, but I will not suggest them to my husband. Adam Rutherford’s A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes is dense and comprehensive – I have been reading a chapter a week in the bathtub. From Neanderthals to Eugenics it covers a great deal of ground and is both well researched and well written.

More fun, but still mainly for us seekers, is She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity. My brother loved this book. It explores the vagaries of genetic inheritance from the eyes of someone becoming a parent.

An oldie but goodie from 1999 is Matt Ridley’s Genome: The Autobiography Of A Species In 23 Chapters (P.S.) This is the book which reignited my interest in genetics in the early 2000s. He has written many interesting books on this topic, this one was written while the human genome was being sequenced. It has a chapter for each chromosome highlighting a known gene on every one.

If how to respond to a pandemic is on your mind you might enjoy The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. A nice thick book of almost 500 pages it starts with a really good history of modern medicine and continues with how the failings of various leaders let the 1918 Spanish Flu spread dramatically, for example, by not cancelling a parade in Philadelphia,

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Summer reading: DNA and historical novels

You don’t have to be Norwegian-American to enjoy Candace Simar‘s novels about the lives and hardships of Norwegian settlers in Minnesota in the mid 1800s. Her characters became very real to me as I read about how they dealt with love, the Indian Uprising, the Civil War, losing children, losing crops, and just getting on with their daily lives. How self-sufficient those settlers had to be! The advent of the sewing machine was major, since they made all their own clothes. She even tells parts of these stories from the Native American point of view.

After I finished the fourth one I was sad that there were no more. In order the books are: Abercrombie Trail: A Novel of the 1862 Uprising, Pomme De Terre, Birdie, and Blooming Prairie.

A History of Scandinavian DNA

If Scandinavian DNA is what interests you, you might like My European Family: The First 54,000 Years by Karin Bojs as much as I did. Karin, a journalist, learns about her ancient ancestors, after DNA testing, by going around Europe interviewing DNA researchers and archaeologists.

With the popularity of autosomal DNA tests, many people are not aware of how interesting it is to know about their deep ancestry via Y and mtDNA haplogroups. The Eupedia website has detailed information about the origins and history of each European haplogroup.

Only Family Tree DNA tests fully for these, although 23andMe will give you your top level haplogroups. If you tested at Ancestry DNA, you can upload to – the health information site – to determine your basic haplogroup, see for how.

Personally I like to keep a chart of my family haplogroups.

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The Foundling, a Compelling Story

Some books are hard to put down. The Foundling: The True Story of a Kidnapping, a Family Secret, and My Search for the Real Me was one of those books for me, maybe that is because I love working with DNA and genealogy and have helped a few adoptees myself. Perhaps it is because I know Cece Moore and the DNA detectives, so I heard about this from the sidelines. However I think it is really because it is such a deeply personal and compelling exploration of Paul’s journey.

Can you imagine filling out a form at the doctor’s office and having to leave the family medical history blank? Or feeling like the odd person out at family gatherings because you are so different from everyone else? These are common feelings for adoptees and Paul, with his co-author Alex Tresniowski, made them come alive for me.

The Paul Fronczak kidnapping was a famous case of a baby stolen from a hospital by a fake nurse. Two years later the FBI found an abandoned toddler in New Jersey that they thought was Paul and he was given to the Fronczaks to raise. This was long before DNA technology could be used. Fifty years later a DNA test proved that Paul was not the stolen baby.

The legendary journalist George Knapp from the Las Vegas I-team took on this story (next episode coming on April 28) and it soon went national. 20/20 made it famous. and separately Cece Moore and her DNA detectives took on the DNA exploration.

The toughest adoption cases to solve in these days of DNA testing are the foundlings. With no names and just a location, only DNA can give an answer and even that is dependent on the luck of close relatives having tested.

Don’t click the Continue Reading unless you are ready for spoilers, just get the book!
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Endogamy: A book and a blog post and my own explorations

Endogamous populations are much harder to work with in genetic genealogy because you have double and triple 6th cousins who look like 2nd to 3rd cousins when you compare their DNA to yours. Ashkenazim (see my Ashkenazi DNA post), Mennonites (see Tim Jantzen’s project), and Polynesians (See Kalani Mondoy”s project) are a few of these intermarried groups. See the ISOGG wiki for a further discussion of endogamy.

A fellow genetic genealogist, Israel Pickhotz, has written a fascinating book about how he has confirmed and refuted many genealogical connections in his extended Ashkenazi family. He did this by testing every cousin he could. That story is an inspiration to those of us frustrated by using DNA to research our jewish roots. It is as easy to read as it can be, given that genetic genealogy is not easy to understand. Lara, blogging at her blog Lara’s Family Search, wrote an excellent description of the book in her review which is hard to improve upon.

Israel’s blog continues his story:

Another DNA expert, Jim Bartlett has just written an interesting blog post investigating the math of endogamy at his segmentology blog. As it is titled part I, I am looking forward to part II.

The problem comes when so many cousins marry each other as you go back up the tree that it gets difficult to calculate the shared DNA. Plus once you get past 3rd cousins, DNA inheritance becomes more and more random anyway.

On my Norwegian side, my Dad has a woman “MB” listed as a 2nd to 3rd cousin who upon investigation was found to be a fifth cousin three times and a sixth another time. She shares 49 cM over 4 segments with my Dad and a whopping 141 cM in 8 segments with my third cousin in Norway. That third cousin is related the same way to MB as we are, but he, like MB, descends from a cousin marriage within this group.

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