THINK OF GENEALOGY and you may think of cardigan-clad early-bird diners who spend long hours in dusty archives and write letters to county clerks’ offices requesting Aunt Beatrice’s birth certificate. Buzzy Jackson, a funny and irreverent member of Generation X, is decidedly not one of those people. And in her new memoir, Shaking the Family Tree: Blue Bloods, Black Sheep, and Other Obsessions of an Accidental Genealogist (Touchstone, $15), she shows that stereotypes have no place in a world where gray-haired women are teaching her how to use Ancestry.com.
Interest in genealogy has been enjoying a renaissance of late, with both the NBC series Who Do You Think You Are and PBS’ Faces of America exploring the family histories of well-known people. Jackson’s desire to research her roots didn’t surface until she was getting married and realized, like so many Americans, that she didn’t know much about her family history beyond her great-grandparents. She knew she had cousins, but she didn’t know how many. She didn’t invite most of them to her wedding, because she barely knew them. And though she knew a few family stories, she couldn’t put them in a context that meant anything to her. When she had her first child, she knew it was time.
At first, she wasn’t sure what she’d find. “I’d come to the Boulder Public Library looking for the truth, if it existed, behind the tall tales told by my family, as well as the silences,” she writes. Her research took her first into the Deep South to visit with cousins in Alabama, where she sought out the Jackson homestead in tiny Emelle, home of the nation’s largest hazardous-waste landfill. Later, she visited Windswept, a pristine family property in Michigan occupied by her aunt Mary who had, sadly, recently put it up for sale.
Throughout the book, Jackson punctuates her genealogical travels with visits to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, a mecca for genealogists worldwide, as well as with a trip on a genealogy cruise, where she attended seminars like “Beyond Y-DNA: Your Genetic Genealogy Options” and “The Naming of the Green: Irish Surnames and Place-Names.” As she broadens her lens and looks at the practice of genealogy, she does an especially wonderful job of illustrating how technology has changed the hobby. She explores the vast number of resources available online now that billions of archival documents have been digitized, and she explains how DNA testing can connect us to men and women who migrated across the globe tens of thousands of years ago.
Jackson does plenty of old-fashioned genealogical research too. As she climbs hills thick with weeds and tramples through mud to find a forgotten graveyard, she finally feels the connection to the past she’d long been searching for. And at the end of her journey, Jackson has a story to tell her now 5-year-old son. It is her story — and his.