Friday, June 20, 2008

Genealogy and Serendipity book review

I've recently been fascinated by the serendipity in genealogy. We are in a unique position in this industry in that we have a product that is used after some genealogical work has been done, unlike software or database services that are usually purchased before or during research. Because of our unique situation, we hear lots of stories about research and genealogy adventures. I have been amazed at how many people have "coincidental" experiences working on their family history. Often people want narratives of the stories incorporated into a chart, or they just want to tell someone about it and I get to be the lucky listener. While none of these stories are mine to share, I can guarantee that Megan Smolenyak's observation "If you were to gather fifty genealogists in a room, chances are that fourty-five of them would readily admit to having experienced a few unexplainable incidents in the search for roots." (pg 1, In Search of Our Ancestors) is absolutely true.

So, I have just read Psychic Roots: Serendipity & Intuition in Genealogy, and More Psychic Roots: Further Adventures in Serendipity & Intuition in Genealogy by Henry Z. Jones Jr. and In Search of our Ancestors: 101 Inspiring Stories of Serendipity and Connection in Rediscovering Our Family History by Megan Smolenyak. Those were the only full fledged books I could find on the subject. (A list of blog entries and web pages to follow in another post.) Do you know of any more?

Henry had me from the beginning because I was raised as a big Disney fan. (He was an actor in several Disney films.) My grandparents lived in LA most of my life and we went to Disneyland every chance we got. As videos came out, not only did Grandpa have 3 copies of every movie ever released, he made sure we all had copies too. So Disney movies were in my Ancestral DNA. His stories, and even a chapter on his acting life were as good reading as the rest of the book. I particularly loved his comments about Stan Laurel. You can tell what kind of person Henry is because of his kind words about everyone in the industry.

While a few of his genealogy comments went a little farther than my comfort level allowed (relating it to being psychic or having a collective conciousness), you have to give him credit for "outing" the subject. This book would never have gotten as far without his solid reputation as a genealogist. And he sports an impressive list of well-respected genealogists as contributors to the book. I can cut him some slack for the small amount of Southern-California spirituality because he was striking out into un-charted territory. I'm so glad he did. You will enjoy the incredible stories he has to tell.

I think Megan refined the subject though in In Search of Our Ancestors. She states that they ran into so many serendipity stories while filming the TV show Ancestors that the subject couldn't be ignored. She did a wonderful job presenting them--letting them stand on their own--with very little commentary and analysis. I think in a mystical/religious/spiritual matter such as this, people have to come at it with their own set of ideals, and Megan did a wonderful job of letting the reader draw their own conclusions. My favorite chapter of all three books was her last "What Were the Odds?" The stories about overhearing a conversation at the FHL, happening to book a Bed and Breakfast that you didn't know your great great great great grandfather had built, finding a page left on a copier, having a book fall off the shelf and open to the right page, and cousins from Washington State and Germany showing up at a Key West archive at the same time are great reading. All three books abound with such stories.

I have experienced things like that too. Several times, I have been speeding through a microfilm in Salt Lake and it just happened to stop on the right page. I have opened up a book entirely in Swedish right to the right page, and had a hard time documenting the find because there was no table of contents, index or even page numbers. One particular family fell together so quickly and easily for us you couldn't say it was just coincidence. The reasons I think it happens may be different than the reasons you think are behind it, but if you haven't run into it yet, you just haven't done enough genealogy yet.

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