Book Review: Hey, America, Your Roots Are Showing by Megan Smolenyak

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I had met Megan Smolenyak years ago at a conference where one of the first things she asked me was what state I lived in. Unfortunately for me, in this case, I live in the state of California, the home of the California Birth and Death Index. Because of the relative ease in finding vital record information in the Golden State, she didn't need my help in finding documents for the work she did with the Army. As I read "Hey, America, Your Roots are Showing," it came as no surprise to me that this ability to network is key in helping her solve genealogical mysteries like that of NBC news anchor, Hoda Kobt's Egyptian ancestry.

This newest work includes stories familiar to those who have followed Megan's career, including the search into the real Annie Moore, the family history of Barack and Michelle Obama, and the surprises that Rev. Al Sharpton's family history research uncovered. While this is not a how-to book, it is a book that provides important research tips couched in stories that will interest everyone. Research reminders such as go back to the beginning, use a social network, Google people's names and all things being equal, the simplest explanation is usually the correct one (Occam's Razor), all provide family historians with ideas for their own research.

This book will appeal to a large audience, not just genealogists, with its tales of celebrity research, assisting the Army to identify the remains of soldiers and historical cases. As you read through these vignettes it becomes obvious that one of Megan's strongest skills is her social network of family, genealogists, historians and of friends who help her locate records and contact people. At a time when genealogists are in some ways more isolated due to long hours searching online databases from the comfort of their homes, Megan's modeling of networking is a good reminder that in solving genealogical cases, we should never rely solely on ourselves.

Some of my favorite stories in this book have to do with the ordinary women the author has researched. The chapter, "A Lonely Tombstone on the Sidewalks of Manhattan" details a case of an out of place tombstone for a Jewish woman who died in the early 20th century. One clue to the deceased's, Hinda Amchanitzky, identity was a cookbook Megan found online. Hinda had written the first Yiddish-language cookbook in America. This cookbook yielded additional clues that led the author to tracing her life and her descendants. One of the tips she supplies in this chapter is that she always goes back to the beginning when she gets stuck on her research. In this case she went back to looking at the gravestone and the death certificate. These steps led her back to a cemetery and information that helped her better understand where Hinda 's stone really belonged.

I'm of the opinion that people have always been people. Humankind has always had the same struggles and have made decisions, both good and poor. Death sometimes gives the false illusion that are ancestors were all prim and proper. No matter what their circumstances, it's the details of a person's life that makes the research so fascinating. A case in point is the chapter "Paralyzed Prostitute." The chapter title alone begs for the reader to dive in and learn more. In this case the ancestor in question was a brick wall for a California genealogist. Multiple marriages, name changes and alternative employment made this female ancestor a difficult project. Not able "to resist a history mystery" Megan tackles it and uncovers the case of the Paralyzed Prostitute and her family.

Reading a book by Megan Smolenyak is like sitting down with an old friend. Her books make research sound like fun, and this latest work is a good case in point. Smolenyak's book is an entertaining look at history and genealogy. Even for those who have hit the proverbial brick wall or have found themselves burned out on family history research, this book will provide a look at why we become obsessed with family history research in the first place, to unlock the mysteries and lives of our ancestors.

Hey, America, Your Roots are Showing, by Megan Smolenyak. Citadel, 2012.

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