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The Genetic Strand: Exploring a Family History Through DNA

The Genetic Strand: Exploring a Family History Through DNA

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by Edward Ball

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The Genetic Strand is the story of a writer's investigation, using DNA science, into the tale of his family's origins. National Book Award winner Edward Ball has turned his probing gaze on the microcosm of the human genome, and not just any human genome -- that of his slave-holding ancestors. What is the legacy of such a family history, and can DNA say


The Genetic Strand is the story of a writer's investigation, using DNA science, into the tale of his family's origins. National Book Award winner Edward Ball has turned his probing gaze on the microcosm of the human genome, and not just any human genome -- that of his slave-holding ancestors. What is the legacy of such a family history, and can DNA say something about it?

In 2000, after a decade in New York City, Ball bought a house in Charleston, South Carolina, home to his father's family for generations, and furnished it with heirloom pieces from his relatives. In one old desk he was startled to discover a secret drawer, sealed perhaps since the Civil War, in which someone had hidden a trove of family hair, with each lock of hair labeled and dated. The strange find propelled him to investigate: what might DNA science reveal about the people -- Ball's family members, long dead -- to whom the hair had belonged? Did the hair come from white relatives, as family tradition insisted? How can genetic tests explain personal identity?

Part crime-scene investigation, part genealogical romp, The Genetic Strand is a personal odyssey into DNA and family history. The story takes the reader into forensics labs where technicians screen remains, using genetics breakthroughs like DNA fingerprinting, and into rooms where fathers nervously await paternity test results. It also summons the writer¹s entertaining and idiosyncratic family, such as Ball¹s antebellum predecessor, Aunt Betsy, who published nutty books on good Southern society; Kate Fuller, the enigmatic ancestor who may have introduced African genes into the Ball family pool; and the author¹s first cousin Catherine, very much alive, who donates a cheek swab from a mouth more attuned to sweet iced tea than DNA sampling.

Writing gracefully but pacing his story like an old-fashioned whodunit, Edward Ball tracks genes shared across generations, adding suspense and personal meaning to what the scientists and Nobel laureates tell us. A beguiling DNA tale, The Genetic Strand reaches toward a new form of writing the genetic memoir.

Editorial Reviews

For approximately two centuries, nine tiny envelopes, the genesis of this book, lay relatively undisturbed in a desk drawer in an old South Carolina home. Inside each packet was a lock of hair, each carefully labeled and dated. Finally, after decades of obscurity, this secret hiding place and its contents were discovered by a descendant of the original owners who is, ever so fortuitously, a National Book Award winner. Edward Ball's Genetic Strand explores his family's heritage through interwoven documents and genetic history provided by DNA testing. A deeply personal book by the author of Slaves in the Family.
Susan Okie
The book engagingly switches back and forth between history and science, alternating anecdotes from the lives of the family members with visits to the labs of the various biologists who assist Ball with his genetic quest. Ball is not a science journalist, but in this case that's not a deficit: An elegant writer and a consummate researcher, he navigates through complicated subjects like DNA fingerprinting and the use of mitochondrial DNA to trace female lineages without resorting to what he disparagingly calls "The Vocabulary" of molecular genetics. Clarity and deft use of analogies help him deliver good enough scientific explanations to move the story seamlessly along…Anyone intrigued by family history will find The Genetic Strand an engaging yarn and will come away with a more nuanced understanding of the complexity of each individual's genetic past.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Some locks of hair found in the secret compartment of a family heirloom was the catalyst for Ball, a National Book Award winner for Slaves in the Family, to embark on a genetic family history. He became animated with the thought that through DNA analysis of the hair he could discover some truths about his Ball ancestry, such as whether his father's maternal grandmother, Kate Fuller, was part African-American. As he relates his experiences with various DNA labs, Ball also describes the hard science behind DNA forensics, informed by conversations with experts in the field. But the account's drama comes from a finding that suggests a Native American ancestor in his family tree. Another lab contradicts this evidence, and the error affects Ball profoundly, leading him to rail about the fallibility of science, the dangers of making science the new religion and scientists, specifically molecular biologists, the new priests. Forensic DNA testing has become hot (exemplified by Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s televised testing results), and as Ball's own emotions show, is also playing into Americans' sense of identity. Ball's tale will intrigue America's many amateur genealogists and also serve as a cautionary tale. (Nov. 6)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

How much can DNA analysis tell us about ourselves? How prepared are we to accept alternative family histories it suggests? Most important, how many of us are equipped to examine and interpret the findings critically? Surprised to discover locks of long-deceased relatives' hair concealed within a family heirloom, Ball (Slaves in the Family) decided to use forensic science to investigate his genealogy. The results caused him and his kin to reconsider both their "thoroughly white" ancestral origins and their confidence in DNA testing. Some readers may be offended by the central story of this book, while others may view it as a tempest in a teapot. Nonetheless, Ball's portraits of aristocratic forebears and contemporary geneticists are fascinating, and his wry commentary on pre-20th-century, white, upper-class South Carolinian mores entertaining. Nonscientists will benefit from his lucid explanations of genetic techniques and terminology. The final chapter, however, disappoints, as the author abandons his inquisitive approach to indulge in complaints about how scientists interpret genetic data and communicate their conclusions to the public. Recommended for public and academic libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ7/07.]
—Nancy R. Curtis

Kirkus Reviews
A provocative meditation on the implications of scientific theories about genetic determinism. Beginning with the National Book Award-winning Slaves in the Family (1998), Ball has written four books (Peninsula of Lies: A True Story of Mysterious Birth and Taboo Love, 2004, etc.) centered in Charleston, S.C., the home base of his father's family. In his latest, he tries to uncover the truth about his origins with the help of cutting-edge genetic science. He questions whether the carefully preserved records of Ball family genealogy tell the whole truth. When he accidentally discovers nine small packets of hair in the secret drawer of a family heirloom that has recently come into his possession, he decides to submit samples for genetic analysis, along with his own hair and that of two cousins. The hair packets were apparently collected as treasured mementos over a 175-year period ending in the 1850s. Ball takes them to several forensic laboratories, which mainly deal with crime-scene evidence but are also equipped to look at "ancient" hair. Much of the book describes the methodology employed by these labs. Ball also delves into the science of genetics, which adds another dimension to the tale. He is most interested in probing his racial history, and the results he receives are at first glance surprising. This leads him to consult anthropologists who study population migrations by identifying variations in the genotype of people of Asian, African and European descent. His quest to discover more about the origins of his family leads the author to examine deeper questions about the extent to which personal identity may or may not be determined genetically. He wonders whether our reliance onscience is perhaps too uncritical. Twists and turns that rival a well-plotted detective story, complete with a surprise ending.
From the Publisher
"Powerful...Ball contributes to at least partly reclaiming the humanity slavery worked to obliterate. He reminds us that slavery was not just about economics or politics or even abstract questions of morality but most essentially about the millions of human beings imprisoned within its chains." — Drew Gilpin Faust, The New York Times Book Review

"Ball is a first-rate scholar-journalist.... Outside Faulkner, it will be hard to find a more poignant, powerful account of a white man struggling with his and his nation's past." — Shane Harrison, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Simon & Schuster
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A STRANGE DISCOVERY caused me to write these pages, like the frozen hunters that have fallen out of melting glaciers in the Alps, and thousand-year-old bog people who have surfaced from moors in Ireland. I found something similar to these things, though not an ice-covered mummy. Due to the chance appearance of a stash of ancient DNA, which turned up in the living room, I became, for a couple of years, an amateur forensic examiner. I recommend the experience, except for this part of it: after falling under the scrutiny of genetics, I could no longer be sure who or what I was. Whereas there used to be no doubt.

What follows is a personal investigation of DNA science. It begins with an intimate finding. Many years ago, some distant relatives collected biological material -- from themselves. They wanted to preserve it, but they probably didn't expect that someone in the future would want to subject it to laboratory analysis, extract genetic material from it, and draw conclusions about them from the results. Which is what occurred, the events that take place in this book.

After discovering a hoard of family genes, I brought it to the attention of DNA scientists and forensic examiners. I educated myself about molecular biology and the things people do with deoxyribonucleic acid in forensic inquiries and in genetics labs. At the start, possibly the most trenchant thing I knew about DNA, the majestic manual of life, was that up close it looked like the Guggenheim Museum. In part, this was because I'm that suspect thing in the eyes of the scientific enterprise: a nonscientist. Chemistry and biology had never aroused me, and I didn't feel the excitement for the "miracles of science" that the public is called on to admire. Nevertheless, my living room was to become a molecular biology salon, part genetics classroom and part forensics office. I wanted to be entertained and enlightened. I didn't plan on a crisis of identity.

DNA science calls a lot of narcissism into the room. What genes do you carry? Who are you? Where did you come from? People with restless minds go over these things in a loop. The wondering about biological inheritance, what has come from your parents, and, for parents, what's going from you to your children, leaves you vulnerable to half-made answers. But, having returned from a kind of genetic quest, I testify that fantastic discoveries lie along the way, provided you don't think of them as having the truth of religion.

The forensic investigation I planned and the one I got turned out to be very different. Using my unusual collection of DNA, I'd expected to write a genetic profile of a family. By reputation, genetics was that miracle tool that could see through the body, and so I thought it might be possible to document one family's biological nature. It didn't happen. Instead, I've written a story that tracks some of the limits of genetics, rather than showing off its reach. But this result is more interesting, and more disturbing.

My tale has two plots. In the first, it is a scientific travelogue, one person's journey through the field of genes. I visit researchers in their laboratories and habitats, talking to people who do DNA analysis, learning how they do it. In a parallel plot, this book is a piece of family history, though it's a special kind, one made possible by forensics and not solely by memory or research. These pages tell the stories of several people, long dead, whose lives are lighted up by trace biological evidence they left behind. The idea of a genetic family portrait survives, but it's more modest; the surprises come from what the scientists do to the evidence, not from their revelations about it.

When I finished, I realized that I had set up a kind of forensics of the self. An esoteric field that will be of little use to the police, but gratifying to the person who wonders who they "are." It's an old enigma -- who you and your family are, your race, your identity -- that genetics and detective work promise to decipher in a different way.

The investigation began, dumbly enough, with a mute piece of furniture.

Copyright © 2007 by Edward Ball

Meet the Author

Edward Ball was born in Savannah, Georgia; graduated from Brown University; and was a writer for The Village Voice. His first book, Slaves in the Family, won the National Book Award. He is also the author of The Sweet Hell Inside.

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The Genetic Strand: Exploring a Family History Through DNA 1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I love the previous Ball books but very disappointed in this one. More about DNA history rather than the Ball history. No real story.