The Wandering Gene and the Indian Princess: Race, Religion, and DNA

The Wandering Gene and the Indian Princess: Race, Religion, and DNA

by Jeff Wheelwright
     
 

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A brilliant and emotionally resonant exploration of science and family history.A vibrant young Hispano woman, Shonnie Medina, inherits a breast-cancer mutation known as BRCA1.185delAG. It is a genetic variant characteristic of Jews. The Medinas knew they were descended from Native Americans and Spanish Catholics, but they did not know that they had Jewish ancestry

Overview

A brilliant and emotionally resonant exploration of science and family history.A vibrant young Hispano woman, Shonnie Medina, inherits a breast-cancer mutation known as BRCA1.185delAG. It is a genetic variant characteristic of Jews. The Medinas knew they were descended from Native Americans and Spanish Catholics, but they did not know that they had Jewish ancestry as well. The mutation most likely sprang from Sephardic Jews hounded by the Spanish Inquisition. The discovery of the gene leads to a fascinating investigation of cultural history and modern genetics by Dr. Harry Ostrer and other experts on the DNA of Jewish populations.Set in the isolated San Luis Valley of Colorado, this beautiful and harrowing book tells of the Medina family’s five-hundred-year passage from medieval Spain to the American Southwest and of their surprising conversion from Catholicism to the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the 1980s. Rejecting conventional therapies in her struggle against cancer, Shonnie Medina died in 1999. Her life embodies a story that could change the way we think about race and faith.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
From breast cancer to secret Jewish rituals, hidden links signify unlikely kinships in this meditative exploration of the science of racial connectedness. Wheelwright, a science journalist, tells the story of Shonnie Medina, a young Hispano woman in Colorado of mixed Indian and Spanish ancestry who died of breast cancer in 1999. She carried a genetic mutation, BRCA1.185delAG, with implications both scary (a high risk of aggressive breast and ovarian cancer) and intriguing, because geneticists consider the mutation a reliable marker of Jewish descent. Wheel-wright maps the mutation’s itinerary from the Babylonian Captivity in the sixth century B.C.E., when geneticists believe it first appeared, through the voyage of conversos—forced converts to Christianity—from Spain to the New World, where hints of Jewish practices persist among Hispano Catholics. But Wheelwright also ties Shonnie’s fate to culture and temperament: the apocalyptic expectations she drew from her Jehovah’s Witness faith; her vanity and feistiness, which led her to reject a mastectomy in favor of “alternative” treatments. (The author’s quiet indictment of New Age medical quackery is devastating.) Wheelwright pairs a clear exposition of the controversial sciences of genetic screening and ethnogeography with a sensitive account of how a modern identity is woven from ancient physical and spiritual strands. 10 illus. (Jan.)
Library Journal
Wheelwright (The Irritable Heart: The Medical Mystery of the Gulf War) introduces his readers to a newly identified cancer cluster among Hispanos, descendents of the original Spanish settlers of the American Southwest who arrived as early as 500 years ago. Shonnie Medina, a dark-haired Hispano beauty who looked like a storybook Indian princess, and her tragic early death from breast cancer is Wheelwright's focus. Through Shonnie and her family, Wheelwright explores Hispano religion and culture; their typical ancestral mix of European, African, and Native American DNA; and their surprising Jewish genetic links now attributed to conversos who left the Spanish Inquisition's horrors for the New World. Shonnie's ultimately futile quest for a cure for her cancer through natural healing is paralleled by geneticist Harry Ostrer's explorations of heritable diseases among Jewish populations and historian Stanley Hordes's controversial search for hidden Jewish links among New Mexico's Hispano population. VERDICT Wheelwright treats the Medina family with warm respect. His compelling narrative will enlighten his readers about the scientific and social dimensions of genetics and the ambiguous genetic links to race and ethnicity.—Kathy Arsenault, St. Petersburg, FL
Kirkus Reviews
A freewheeling trip through Southwestern culture and religion, Jewish history and modern genetics. In 2008, science writer Wheelwright reported in Smithsonian magazine on the discovery in Catholic Hispanos in New Mexico and Colorado of a genetic mutation, BRCA1.185delAG, that is characteristic of Jews. The mutation, whose designation indicates that the letters AG are missing at location 185 on the gene, causes the gene to fail at its task of suppressing cancer. The author tells the story of the discovery of its ancient origins more than 2,000 years ago among Hebrew tribes in the Middle East, the dispersion of the Jews to Europe, the enforced conversion of many Jews to Catholicism under the Spanish Inquisition and the arrival of Spaniards in the New World. Into this large picture, Wheelwright weaves the story of Shonnie Medina, a young Hispano woman who carried the mutation, and of her extended family, possible carriers of the gene. Medina was raised a Catholic but became a Jehovah's Witness, a fact that allows the author to weave another thread into his complex tapestry. Other important characters include: Jeff Shaw, a genetic counselor who worked with Medina's family; Dr. Harry Ostrer, head of the Human Genetics Program at NYU and author of a paper on DNA and Jewishness; Stanley Hordes, author of a book on the crypto-Jews of New Mexico whose research was supported by the discovery of the mutated gene; and Judith Neulander, an ethnographer who disputed Hordes' claims. The cast is large and the story covers millennia, but with Medina and her family at its center, it is still small and personal. An intriguing tale told with gusto.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780393081916
Publisher:
Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
01/16/2012
Pages:
272
Sales rank:
641,861
Product dimensions:
9.30(w) x 6.10(h) x 1.10(d)

Meet the Author

Jeff Wheelwright is a freelance journalist and the former science editor of Life magazine. He is the author of Degrees of Disaster and The Irritable Heart. He lives in Morro Bay, California.

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