The Gene Pool: The Literature Edition

Every now and then I like to sum up a few genealogy-related items I’ve come across in pop culture. I call it The Gene Pool because I’m clever.

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Item #1: The Dead by Billy Collins
via book and the Internet

(I came across this poem recently, and wanted to keep it around to read. It nicely sums up my connection to my ancestors while I’m researching them.)

The dead are always looking down on us, they say.
while we are putting on our shoes or making a sandwich,
they are looking down through the glass bottom boats of heaven
as they row themselves slowly through eternity.

They watch the tops of our heads moving below on earth,
and when we lie down in a field or on a couch,
drugged perhaps by the hum of a long afternoon,
they think we are looking back at them,
which makes them lift their oars and fall silent
and wait, like parents, for us to close our eyes.

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Item #2: City of Thieves by David Benioff
via book

In the introCity of Thieves book coverduction of the book, the author (who currently heads the writing team of the Game of Thrones series) explains that he kept asking his immigrant grandfather to tell him what life in Russia was like during the Nazi occupation. His grandfather repeatedly refused to talk about it, but gave him a blessing of using his authorly skills to make a story up. Benioff researched the siege of St. Petersburg and then built a narrative around the historical facts. If you’ve been reading my blog, you’ll know that this technique is exactly what I’m attempting to do with my ancestors’ histories.  The result is an incredibly moving tale of two ‘criminals’ and their odd journey through the battle zones of World War II.

This book will stay in my library as an excellent example of blurring the lines between history and fiction. I think you’ll enjoy it too, although, I will warn you that it does not pull any punches when describing the human condition during wartime. I sobbed through several chapters in this book. I am not much for sobbing generally.

For more on my impressions of this book, read my review on Goodreads. Warning: SPOILERS!

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Item #3: Who Do You Think You Are?
via television

Not quite literature, I know, but the fourth season premieres on TLC this Wednesday night with Cynthia Nixon of Sex and the City fame. Who Do You Think You Are? is a show that researches a celebrity’s ancestors and then recounts an interesting tale from their findings. The first few episodes on NBC were admittedly dry, but the Mormons over at Ancestry.com who produce it have found a way to jazz it up a bit. The episode on Christina Applegate’s father has stuck with me for 2 years.

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Like what I did here? Read other Gene Pool installments: Paul Fronczak & San Miguel and Coincidences!

Do you know about any history, sociology, or genealogy stories  I can use for upcoming Gene Pools? Tell me about it.

The Gene Pool: Coincidences

Every now and then I like to sum up a few genealogy-related items I’ve come across in pop culture. I call it The Gene Pool because I’m clever.

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Item #1: Oh my god, you’re European!
via the Internet

Samantha logged onto Facebook one day and read a message from a woman in England telling her that she had a doppelganger. She clicked a link to the woman’s Facebook profile and couldn’t believe what she saw. A year and a half later they’re documenting their story. I love this kind of stuff.


Read more here.

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Item #2: No Coincidence, No Story
via radio and the Internet

Family researchers often find themselves in situations where they have to decide whether a coincidence is happenstance or a pattern taking shape. So, when I heard the first story about coincidences on an NPR broadcast, I was hooked!

After hearing the hour long broadcast, I couldn’t stop telling everyone I saw about the significance of a man giving his girlfriend a dollar with her name written on it (minute 22 in the podcast below), or the odd story of a man being given a picture of a toddler in a stroller taken 18 years ago and noticing his own grandmother perfectly framed in the background (minute 9:14 in the podcast below). And the other 13 stories gave me goose pimples, too.

Listen to the broadcast here. This one is a bit of a time commitment, come back to it when you’re washing dishes or cleaning house this weekend. I promise you won’t be sorry.

 

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Item # 3: History Detectives
via television

I’m really late to this party,  but I figure if I wasn’t aware of PBS’s History Detectives even after 10 seasons of being on the air, then others might not know about it either. It is exactly the kind of tv program someone who knew me pretty well would tell me about!

It’s similar to Antiques Roadshow, only instead of appraising objects from the past, the detectives research the story behind the objects. In a recent episode, a woman inherited a beautiful electric guitar from her father who had worked in the music business. Her father told her it was the very guitar Bob Dylan played at his infamous Newport Folk Festival performance. So the detective went out to verify the story.

That example is a little less genealogy oriented, than others. They’ve also investigated the story behind two stolen Civil War derringers (I had to look up the word) and the validity of a woman’s claim that she inherited royal jewels. My point is that this show covers the whole gamut of people’s interests — music, art, culture, writing, architecture, sports, military– not to mention my three blogging loves: history, sociology, and genealogy.

Check out their website or watch a segment about a book of African American spirituals:

 

Like what I did here? Read my first Gene Pool installment!

Do you know about any history, sociology, or genealogy stories  I can use for upcoming Gene Pools? Tell me about it.

Have any interesting coincidences happen to you lately? I’d love to hear it. Or just tell me what you thought of my finds.

 

The Gene Pool: Paul Fronczak and San Miguel

I find my time writing and my time researching are currently at odds with each other. My solution is to sum up a few genealogy-related items I’ve come across in the media. I’m calling it The Gene Pool because I’m clever.

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Item #1:

The mystery continues in the Paul Fronczak case. Have you heard this story?

Here's where the story starts. This is stuff you can't make up!
Here’s where the story starts. This is stuff you can’t make up!

Fifty years ago, a baby named Paul Fronczak was stolen from a Chicago hospital by a woman dressed as a nurse. Months later, a baby is found in a field in New Jersey and is believed to be Paul. The elated parents took the baby in believing him to be theirs. This was back in 1964.

Recently, the man raised as Paul Fronczak took a DNA test that revealed he was not actually the kidnapped baby. So he decides to find out who he is and what happened to the real Paul Fronczak.

Click on the newspaper article above or google the thorough (if somewhat smarmily produced) ABC news story if you haven’t heard it. It’s worth it; there are so many unexpected twists and turns. And thanks to advances in DNA mapping, we no longer have to rely on the shapes of baby’s ears to identify them.

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Item #2, no spoilers:

The author of The Road to Wellville and The Women tackles yet another place and time. Two families living on a remote island off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, from the 1880s to the 1940s weather wars, the Depression, and a whole lotta sheep.

San Miguel by T. C. Boyle
San Miguel by T. C. Boyle

T. C. Boyle has long been a favorite author of mine. The way he weaves a fictional story around the hard data of actual events is masterful. The three segments of the book feel a little more like character sketches than a story with an arc. But the care with which Boyle writes about them makes up for the seeming lack of connection between the two families. This book made me realize that the fiction I’ve been writing about my family is heavily influenced by his work.

Boyle creates a solid tone and setting in the wind-swept, barren terrain of San Miguel island. He also manages to gently insert his theme of environmentalism into the story. The eventual mistreatment of the island leads directly to the outcome of their stories. The author also plays around with the idea of technology changing people’s lives. Nowadays, the internet is just another tool we use everyday. We don’t think much about the time it took to creep into our lives, how extraordinary it seemed at first, and the changes we made to fit it into society. Boyle’s introduction of the radio and the airplane into the Lester’s secluded life made me look at those everyday items as new and wondrous.

I got so caught up in the story of the living, breathing people upon which this book is based that I had to go into my Ancestry account and see what I could find on the two families. Here’s a couple items with no spoilers:

 

This phone directory from 1905 shows Capt. Waters's declaration as the President of a bunch of sheep.
This phone directory from 1905 shows Capt. Waters’s declaration as the President of a bunch of sheep.
The Lesters 1940 census
And this 1940 census record shows that the mild annoyance of manning the weather station kept the Lesters afloat on the island.

I’m withholding my opinions about this book so as not to spoil it for any of you interested in reading it. If you do read it, and want to discuss it with me, please comment on this post! Comment on it anyway, let me know you’re out there, instead of just being a statistic on this site.