Monday, January 20, 2014

The Bookshelf: Reunion. A Search for Ancestors by Ryan Littrell

Reunion. A Search for Ancestors by Ryan Littrell

In December I borrowed Reunion. A Search for Ancestors from the Kindle Owners' Library. I had never read a "how I found my ancestors" memoir before but one whose subject was the hunt for McDonalds seemed like a good place to start.

Littrell details an extensive quest for his MacDonald line - DNA analysis, meeting people, using online databases, visits to courthouses and cemeteries, hiring professional researchers, and trips across the United States and to Scotland. He and his fiancee even ended up getting married in Scotland. On their honeymoon they were able to hear a talk by the geneticist Brian Sykes, which in addition to a good evening out provided an opportunity to introduce the reader to DNA basics.

Ultimately, he learns from a DNA test to which branch of the McDonalds he belongs and a very strong case for the identity of his specific McDonald ancestor who came to America in the eighteenth century. The family was of the tacksman class, which makes them a little easier to trace, in Scotland at least. In America, this ancestor's descendants became "average" farmers like so many of the rest of our ancestors. As a case study of genealogical research, I thought the book was fascinating. The steps he took and the way he reached out to people and bravely knocked on doors was a great example of determined genealogical research.

As a work of literature, I found it a bit wanting. Sentences containing the phrase "And then I looked on Ancestry" or something like it was way over used. Then beginning with chapter 10, just after he found out to which branch of the McDonalds to which he belonged, Littrell did something I thought very odd. He apparently switches voice, I thought to perhaps his immigrant ancestor, to tell the history of the region of Scotland  that was his McDonalds' homeland. This continues throughout the book: one chapter of his research journey then the next a history of Scotland. Not only could I not determine who was telling this history, it wasn't particularly good history either.

I don't want to spoil the fun of his research answers, but if you want to know more about his McDonalds read this post from 2011 and look for the podcast featuring Karin Bowie, Murray Pittock, and Daniel Szechi. It will give you an academic perspective on one of the events mentioned in the book.

Overall Reunion. A Search for Ancestors is a "good read" particularly if you are engaged in your own complicated ancestor hunt; are interested in understanding how helpful DNA can be to genealogical research; or, from academic perspective, to gain understanding of the ancestral diaspora and how they relate to Scotland. A portion of the proceeds will benefit a Heritage Trust. I can't say which without spoiling the answer to Littrell's quest.

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