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Book Review

Past is present in genealogy

Historian Buzzy Jackson chronicles her journey in “Shaking the Family Tree.’’ Historian Buzzy Jackson chronicles her journey in “Shaking the Family Tree.’’ (Andrea Scher)
By Chuck Leddy
September 3, 2010

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More than simply a whirlwind journey into her family’s past, historian Buzzy Jackson’s account is a deep look inside the often-obsessive world of genealogists, people notable for their “willingness to just keep at it and never give up.’’ After giving birth to her son, Jackson becomes fascinated with her family’s history. She puts in an incredible amount of legwork, visiting archives and libraries, traveling the country to interview relatives, seeking advice from world-renowned genealogists on a genealogy ocean cruise, and documenting everything she finds along the way.

Following solid genealogical methodology, Jackson begins by researching herself and her parents. She finds obstacles all along the way: “I never found anything that proved I was married, a sad fact demonstrating that it doesn’t necessarily take decades or centuries for records to become lost.’’ While interviewing her chatty, highly religious Aunt Mary, Jackson brings a long list of questions only to find that “you can ask your relatives to talk to you, and they might talk, but not necessarily about the things you had in mind.’’ Her Alabama relatives, she learns, loathe her liberal, pro-Obama politics.

Jackson’s narrative moves back and forth from her own search to a “big picture’’ focus on the subculture of genealogy, with its legions of societies, websites, and archival resources. She jumps feet first into this subculture during an ocean cruise whose main attraction is access to world-renowned genealogists, including David Lambert of the New England Historic Genealogical Society. During his talk, Lambert asks the cruising genealogists how far back they can trace their family tree. While the author goes back to the 19th century, many of her shipmates proudly trace their families back to the 17th century: “This was the first time I witnessed the game of genealogical one-upmanship.’’

Talking to her divorced mother and father, Jackson traces her maternal line back to Russia, a country her Jewish grandparents fled due to czarist-era anti-Semitism. On her father’s side, she traces the family back to the deep South and the Alabama of her grandfather’s youth. She’ll find Confederate soldiers in her family, and slave-owners, too. Throughout, Jackson just keeps digging, following leads wherever they take her.

Jackson discovers a generosity of spirit among genealogists, despite the massive challenges of the work. As a result of the cruise, the author encounters Judy Bennett, whose husband is part of the Jackson family clan. Bennett had been tracing the Jackson family line for years and presents her full results to the stunned author. Jackson’s search moves instantly from the 19th century to the 17th. With this new data, she travels to her family’s Southern roots.

In Alabama, she hits the jackpot, finding a backroads cemetery where seven Jacksons are buried. “Standing among my ancestors’ headstones,’’ she writes, “I felt that elusive thrill of accomplishment, of finding exactly what I’d hoped to — and more.’’ A few of these long-dead Jacksons had owned slaves; the author also wonders if any of these slave-owning Jacksons had conceived children with their slave women, further enlarging her family tree.

What Jackson discovers is the obsessive nature of genealogy. Finding one piece of data sparks more curiosity and more questions. Hard-core genealogists never stop: “Genealogical research never ends,’’ Jackson writes. “More research simply leads to more names, and more research.’’ Meanwhile, mammoth-size archives are available online, accessible to anyone with a computer. Jackson’s account is an easily digested travelogue into her family’s history and a vivid journey into the world of genealogy.

Chuck Leddy, a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester, can be reached at chuckleddy@comcast.net.

SHAKING THE FAMILY TREE: Blue Bloods, Black Sheep, and Other Obsessions of an Accidental Genealogist

By Buzzy Jackson

Touchstone, 241 pp., $14.99