Genealogist publishes on American roots

Susan Altman, Staff Writer

Some individuals can already trace their family back for several generations, and they can even name their third cousins twice removed. Others may not know the identities of their grandparents, but hope to discover more. No matter where someone may fall on this spectrum, it is important to note that genealogy is a rapidly changing field. Vital files are often readily accessible online, and advances in DNA testing have revolutionized the field which often involved using a handwritten record in the front of a dusty family Bible.

Television shows have demonstrated these changes over the last few years, mostly by exploring the lineage of celebrities.  However, genealogy goes beyond merely studying America’s greats- it also involves discovering the “little people” in history. Megan Smolenyak, a professional genealogist, discusses this and more in “Hey, America, Your Roots Are Showing.”

This book is not a how-to guide: Smolenyak previously published such a manual in 2010, which accompanied NBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” Instead, this book takes more of an auto-biographical approach. While Smolenyak may not be a household name at this point, she has accomplished quite a lot, and the twenty-two chapters cover some of the highlights from her career.

While most chapters do discuss the searches for long lost relatives of American citizens, several center on more humanitarian concerns. For example, as the daughter of a Vietnam War veteran, one of Smolenyak’s main causes involves identifying the remains of possible missing in action soldiers from multiple wars. She also helps in general unclaimed persons cases around the United States, even founding an organization which has solved hundreds of such situations.  Aiding adoptees locate their birth family, working with the FBI to decipher civil rights cold cases and researching name changes are just a few additional regular aspects of her work.

Smolenyak does delve into a few of her notable cases. A few years ago, news articles appeared announcing evidence that President Barack Obama had Irish roots through his mother. While many places did not properly cite her, Smolenyak was the researcher behind this discovery, and she describes the complicated process behind the search. Michelle Obama similarly receives her fair share of Smolenyak’s attention, as does “Roots” writer Alex Haley, the political activist Al Sharpton and television anchor Hoda Kotb.

Other chapters are more of a general interest. She unearths two relatives familiar with each other who lived in a span of four hundred years, explains why celebrities such as Britney Spears and John Edwards being cousins is not shocking, talks about the difficulties of approaching people about previously unknown relations, and much more.

During all of these searches, she explains how traditional search methods—searching archives, visiting graveyards, and so on—are still important, but indicates how DNA testing, social media and computer programs are paving the way to fascinating findings.

The book is written in first-person, and despite it being chock-full of her numerous accomplishments, Smolenyak is entirely humble and comedic throughout. She explains concepts thoroughly, so the most casual of readers can savor it without issues. In one chapter, she is even willing to get personal, admitting to a shocking discovery she made about her grandmother years after her death. Overall, “Hey, America, Your Roots Are Showing” definitely deserves to be picked up off of a bookshelf.