Monday, February 1, 2010

Kinfolk: Falling Off the Family Tree

We I picked out this book using my gift card, I read the inside flap information and thought this would be about one author's genealogy search to locate her ancestors. I thought it would be full of tips that I might use to further my own research while enjoying a story from another genealogist. I thought it might enlighten me on a particular historical population group called the Melungeons whom I knew nothing about. I was wrong on all accounts.

This book was more of a personal reflection on her father's theorized ancestors the Melungeons. There was very little if any definitive research to prove ancestry. Rather, this was mostly a personal voyage to rehash other researchers theories of who the Melungeons were and put it into a book to sell. Intermixed into this rehashing were personal stories of her life some of which had something to do with her ancestry but most just amusing anecdotal stories of her life.
While this sounds kind of harsh, it wasn't a terrible book to read. I did enjoy the stories of her life and her presentation of other scholars theories on the Melungeon family but the book jacket certainly didn't reflect the pages between the covers. As a writer, I give Alther a B minus. Her writing is light and easy to follow though her composition lacks a lot to be desired. The whole book feels as if she took random pictures that had been taken throughout her life and wrote a paragraph or two about the ones she pulled from the pile. Each page contained two or three little stories each with little relation to the other except for being about her life and having a humorous interpretation. The end result was a book with chapters that were full of chapters with stories thrown in chronologically but not really tied together. It was light reading and enjoyable but again, not as advertised.

From her mostly biographical writing on her life, I learned that she has written a handful of other books though this book was her first stab at non-fiction. I also learned that the melungeons were a group of people that lived in a particular region of Virginia that have been theorized to have origins as cast away Portuguese sailors, Turks, Spaniards and Native Americans. Alther ran with this to pretty much lump melungeons into a category where anyone of mixed and unknown ancestry can call theirs. I get the sense that the scholars of melungeon ancestry are for the most part pretty dismissive of this book as anything more than historical fiction.

I do give this book high marks for making me aware of a large gap in my knowledge of early American history. I remember Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492 and didn't even discover our continent though he did set foot on an island nearby. Then the Pilgrims landed in 1620 to set up the first colony. In-between those two points I for the most part had the impression that our country was a blank map except for a scattered population of Native Americans. In fact, it was full of Europeans on various expeditions who were exploring well over 50% of our continent and leaving behind people who may or may not have helped create the melungeons. With the desire to fill in that gap now burning, I have bought another book, again with another gift card, that is filling it in and so far has been a much better read than Alther's book, Kinfolk.

In conclusion, if you are looking for a biographical book about one person's reflections into a group of people that may or may not be her ancestors and don't mind a choppy book composition, this book is worth reading. If you are looking for a book on genealogical research or a historical look on Melungeons, there are much better books out there to read.


sage said...

Blogger ate my first attempt at posting...

For filling in the gaps in early American history, and having a few laughs along the way, I recommend Tony Horwitz's "A Journey Long and Strange." I read it last winter but for some reason didnt get around to writing a review. He travels around looking for those first European settlers, starting with the Vikings and ending up with the Pilgrims, making the point that they were rather latecomers. He does spend a fair amount of time in Virginia. He is also author of "Confederates in the Attic," another very funny book, a look at how the civil war is still being fought.

R. Sherman said...

It sounds like she suffered from some bad editing advice, at least with respect to the title and cover design. I do get a little ticked when I buy a book only to discover it's nothing like it's advertised. I'm afraid I wind up getting prejudiced against it from the get-go and it's hard to overcome that.


Ed said...

Sage - Great minds think alike. I am nearly finished with that very book and if I do a review, it will mostly likely be a lot better than this one.

R. Sherman - I obviously had a hard time with my prejudice after discovering I'd been duped. I wasn't going to do the review at all but figured that someone may do more research before purchasing this book and thus this might give them some insight.

History Chasers said...

Great review!

For a serious look at Melungeon research, take a look into these blogs and websites:

And to fill in gap between Columbus and the Pilgrims:

Eutychus2 said...

Not new information gained is lost time! I really appreciate your positive outlook, thanks.