Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Shelving: Kinfolks by Lisa Alther

"This raises the question of which is more dominant -- one's cultural heritage of one's genetic heritage. [...] But what happens when one's cultural heritage and generic heritage don't match? What happens when there are several heritages?" -- Lisa Alther

I picked up Lisa Alther's Kinfolks  a couple years ago when I was digging through my maternal grandfather's family history. I had little knowledge of it beyond his grandmother, of whom I have exactly two pictures, and the standard line I'd been given since childhood, "We're French and Native American." There are several m├ętis lines on his mother's side, along with some Sephardic jewry, but his father's mostly disappear into Appalachia. I grew up with the rumors of some of his ancestors being "black dutch " or Roma (the latter of which I have no evidence at all -- though they did move around a lot). I first saw the word "melungeon" in Bill Bryson's book, The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America, and it has haunted me since. (Though what I mostly remember of the book is Bryson trying to peek through the windows of some unsuspecting family trying to catch a glimpse of these elusive melungeons. I stopped reading after that.)

Wikipedia defines Melungeon as: "a term traditionally applied to one of a number of "tri-racial isolate" groups of the Southeastern United States, mainly in the Cumberland Gap area of central Appalachia, which includes portions of East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and East Kentucky. Tri-racial describes populations thought to be of mixed European, sub-Saharan African, and Native American ancestry." (Daisy explains it in further detail talking about her own family, but a lot of questions remain.)

Are my grandfather's ancestors melungeon? Most likely not, though some of their names appear on lists of common melungeon surnames. What I liked about Alther's book is in the end, she doesn't have it all figured out either, even after interviewing family members, meeting a new cousin who's done extensive research on melungeons, a trip to Turkey (some researches claim a Turkish component to Melungeon DNA, though it hasn't been proven) and even DNA testing. Kinfolks is part memoir, and part speculative history, though by no means does it pretend to be historically accurate. (I think this is important to remember and one of the primary criticisms I read when looking at a few reviews before writing my own.) It's a great read for anyone who's ever fallen down the genealogical rabbit hole -- a hobby that always borders on self-indulgence. It's easy to romanticize one's distant ancestors, and she does little of it while maintaing a sense of wonder, and often befuddlement. I also like the way she exploits the parallels in her own life, moving from place to place, never really fitting in anywhere, and her ancestors'.

I wish she'd write an updated or revised version. DNA has gotten more advanced in the five years since the book was published, and that she'd further address the question in the quote "What happens when one's genetic and cultural identity doesn't match?" because I see so much of my family in Kinfolks, and have a lot of the same unanswered questions.


  1. I have to read this. My ancestry, on my father's side, comes from southern West Virginia, Southwestern Virginia, and Eastern Kentucky. My father and, especially my paternal grandmother, look strongly native american, and I've always been told they were part Cherokee. But they've always been sketchy about it, and to be honest, strangely reluctant to talk about it. The thing is, ever since I learned about Melungeons, I, too have wondered whether my folks may be part of that group. Regardless of a possible personal connection, it's an interesting topic.

  2. I think a lot of people, particularly in the South, have a strong oral tradition of having Native American ancestry. Mine is well-documented, mixed in with the acadian side, but I'm still hesitant to claim it as an identity, or even talk about it, as I don't want to appropriate an experience that isn't mine.