The Wandering Gene and the Indian Princess: Race, Religion, and DNA [NOOK Book]


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 ...

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

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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 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.

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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.
The Barnes & Noble Review

The Wandering Gene and the Indian Princess spans continents and millennia but takes place largely in Colorado's barren and impoverished San Luis Valley, which, author Jeff Wheelwright notes drily, is "not a place you would expect to find a flare-up of Jewish consciousness." But the San Luis Valley is home to the Medinas, a large Hispano family of Spanish and Native American descent, and many of them have tested positive for the BRCA1.185delAG gene, the breast cancer mutation considered to be unambiguous evidence of Jewish ancestry.

The heart of Wheelwright's alternately fascinating and painful book is Shonnie Medina, who was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer at age twenty-six and dead by twenty-eight. What fascinates is the author's account of how the Jewish marker first came to be and how it eventually showed up among the Catholics of the American Southwest. Scientists believe that the mutation, discovered in the mid-1990s, is 2,500 years old and that it entered the Israelite gene pool via a single founder. (Unlike recessive genes like those that cause the deadly Tay-Sachs, a rare genetic disease affecting Jews, this mutation acts alone, requiring only one parent to pass it down.) Wheelwright, a science journalist whose previous books were about the Exxon Valdez oil spill and illnesses afflicting Gulf War veterans, explains that in a bitter twist, some of the early Israelite strategies to survive in the face of oppression, including preserving "sacred separateness" and "blood purity," led to genetic isolation and the concentration of the mutation. While 1 in 100 Ashkenazi Jews are thought to be carriers of 185delAG, it likely came to the San Luis Valley by way of Sephardic Jews who colonized what was then New Spain after being forced to convert to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition, beginning in the late fifteenth century. The painful part of the book, of course, concerns Shonnie, whose DNA brought her toward her terrible fate but whose culture and temperament finished her off. "Marginal medicine" and "marginal religion," Wheelwright writes, "swirl about the story of Shonnie Medina like two furies." She and many of her relatives abandoned Catholicism and became Jehovah's Witnesses in the 1980s. Shonnie was passionate about door-to-door evangelizing, and the booklet she carried with her on her home visits equated original sin to "a terrible inherited disease from which no one can escape." Wheelwright suggests that the Witnesses' apocalyptic beliefs and distrust of secular society (Shonnie's father, Joseph, eschewed banks, instead burying cash in jars spread all over his property) contributed to the young woman's decision to refuse surgery and chemotherapy. Vanity also played a role — she couldn't accept the prospect of a mastectomy. Instead, she traveled five times to Tijuana for specious herbal therapies before her death in 1999.

As part of his research, Wheelwright spent considerable time with the extended Medina clan. He sat in on a Sunday afternoon session with a genetic counselor held at Shonnie's parents' restaurant in 2007; the counselor drove in from Colorado Springs to explain the science behind the mutation and to urge the gathered family members to undergo DNA testing. Two years later, the restaurant again played host, this time to the Hispano DNA Project, which, led by the head of the Human Genetics Program at New York University, collected blood samples from locals in an effort to amass more information about their genetic ancestry. By then the possibility of a "crypto-Jewish" community in the Valley had aroused interest from academics and the press. While some Hispanos in the area were skeptical, others, including some distant relatives of Shonnie's, began to plumb their pasts, recalling grandparents quietly lighting candles on Friday nights or avoiding pork.

Wheelwright seems to admire the family's willingness to confront the dangers presented by their DNA, but he is disheartened by their persistent faith in alternative therapies. He reports that three of Shonnie's aunts shared an expensive "Bio-Enhancement Feedback Unit" machine among their households, convinced that the machine drew toxins out of their bodies. One of the aunts, who was treated for a lump in her breast solely by a nutritionist until finally agreeing to a belated mastectomy, died not long after.

The only parts of the book that fall flat are Wheelwright's occasional attempts at lyricism, as when, describing a coming downpour, he writes, "Thunderstorm and lightning, the sky ejaculating, the airborne ancestors writhing in dark tumult." Such passages feel forced, as if the author believed that his topic demanded more gravitas than his journalistic style alone could supply. But that clear-eyed journalism and his deft handling of so many different, complex strands — the science, the history, the stories of Shonnie and her family, thorny issues of race and religion — are Wheelwright's real achievement.

Barbara Spindel has covered books for Time Out New York,, Details, and Spin. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies.

Reviewer: Barbara Spindel

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393083422
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 1/9/2012
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Sales rank: 840,258
  • File size: 2 MB

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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