This is a non-fiction work very aptly subtitled, A Journey into Family, Legend and the Genes that Bind Us. Read over a period of several weeks, I found it to be inspirational because I have worked for a long time on an anecdotal family history which has been overwhelming at times, comforting because of the set-backs and discouragements the writer faced constantly and informative because the author went into new and challenging territory to try and get closure for her search. Had I known that the plot would be so exciting and the high point so uplifting, I would have read much more quickly but I am glad that I did not for I was able to absorb and savour the considerable quantity of information presented.
The epigraph from George Bernard Shaw’s Immaturity set an encouraging tone for the book:
“If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.”
The family tree diagrams and the maps of southern India and the island of Jamaica were much appreciated: all too often these materials are missing from books which constantly refer to particular persons or geographical locations. The photographs too were just enough to give the reader a sense of the main characters involved in this search for ancestors. The Paul Crooks novel, Ancestors, was not listed at my local library but I might try a wider search for same although the factual story by itself was quite satisfying: it is always interesting to see how the fiction and the non-fiction compare.
The Prologue and its background of the author’s experience investigating the SARS(severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak in Toronto, her entry into a maternity ward in which a medical student had developed the symptoms the day she was admitted and her period of quarantine lead nicely into her family history project. “What I saw in my daughter, in that quarantined room, was the past and future all at once.”
“Ten years later, if I try to pinpoint when the desire to know became the determination to find out, or, why my daughter would know about DNA before she knew how to read, or how I became preoccupied with collecting it, from both the living and the dead, I keep returning to that picture (of her daughter taken forty-eight hours after she was born). The birth of any child pushes the past into the present. It just so happened that Jade was born into a time and place where the clocks seemed to have stopped. An unexpected gift of time had come with her arrival – six long days we spent under quarantine when the city had gone half-mad with fear and confusion.”
“She was the first baby in our family in more than a dozen years. Since no one could visit, everyone called. They asked the questions people do when a new life appears: What does she look like? Who does she look like?”
“The past is never lost, not completely; we carry it with us, in us, and we look for it in our parents and in our children, to give us our bearings and ground us in the continuity of life. And the past accommodates. It shows off in dazzling, unpredictable ways – a familiar gait, a gesture, the timbre of a voice, a blot of colour along the tailbone.. The body has a long memory indeed. Written in the quirky tongue of DNA and wound into the nucleus of nearly every human cell are biological momentos of the family who came before us. ”
The author explains that she had written about advances in genetics for much of her professional life but she had “never been tempted to know what secrets my[her] own DNA harboured until it became possible to use genetic testing to learn about ancestry.”
It was her great-grandfathers who most intrigued her: one was a sea captain and the other a circus juggler (hence the book’s title). Both men had appeared in India in the nineteenth century, one died in his early thirties and the other disappeared. And so her search began. She didn’t expect to be pushed “to the moral brink”and have to “wonder about the existence of ghosts and propriety of grave-robbing”. Nor did she ” foresee that unearthing the roots of my [her] family could bury the story of someone else’s.” “But,” as she acknowledges, “a genetic journey has a way of bending the road in ways you might never imagine.”
In almost every family there is at least one person who fits the role of family chronicler in one way or another: it might be an actual researcher, or a photographer or just someone who is inspired by what he/she knows of a grandparent or an uncle or a distant cousin who once wrote a book or robbed a bank. It often starts with curiosity and ends in the compilation of an initial family tree which is passed to the next generation and which grows and grows through several generations. In the case of Carolyn Abraham, the search is carried to the nth degree and is a fascinating one to read about in itself. It is a bonus that a reader can pick up tips about how to begin such a search and what avenues to consider if one meets up with an obstacle in the course of one’s search.
In some sections, the journey Carolyn makes is fascinating in itself. She makes several trips with her parents and one of these is to the Nilgiri Hills in India and another is to Jamaica. In India she took part in a ritual called the blessing of the temple pachyderm. A donation of a few rupees is collected by the elephants themselves using their trunks. Apparently it is a common ritual in southern India but here is the author’s description of it:
“…it meant something to take part in that ancient Hindu ritual. It may have been a sacred rite to long-forgotten ancestors, before we, like so much of the rest of the world, split from our tribes and our gods. The symbolism of the act was powerful to me all the same, maybe even spiritual on some indefinable level – to feel small and vulnerable inside this big, timeless rock, on my knees before a beast that could ch]rush me with a sneeze – the six-tonne pet of the Kurumbas; the workhorse of the British; an icon of wisdom, memory, India and, of course, the circus.”
The journey to Jamaica is of equal interest and includes finding the sight of an ancient plantation and a grave of a plantation owner buried in 1740 aged 32 years. Then there is a major mystery: the sea Captain’s quadroon grandfather, according to records and testimonials, managed to become “a gentleman” by 1833 which was five years BEORE slavery ended on the island. The trail of property sales and business agreements that help to sort this out is one of those searches that can be fascinating in its degree of complication.
I have said little about the DNA side of the author’s investigation but that is also another very informative aspect of the search. Scientific concepts such as mitochondrial DNA and the Y chromosome and haplogroups and the interpretation of test results are explained thoroughly and are not burdensome. Humour is also employed by the author to lighten some of the material: “The Y is a hidden record of history’s winners and losers, a short volume on the sex lives of powerful men – you lead, you breed.” Interesting anecdotal information to illustrate statements such as the preceding one is also included such as the bit about “sixteen million men carrying the Y chromosome belonging to the paternal line of Genghis Khan.” DNA searching is not claimed to be infallible and examples are provided. DNA testing also became more sophisticated even over the period of Carolyn’s search for her two great-grandfathers. Even those with no liklihood/or need to use DNA testing for their own family history work, should find the pertinent information on this topic of considerable interest. The author often returned to the paper trail when other sources led to no results and a combination of all the search methods was standard practice throughout her journey.
For me, the author brought the book full circle when she summed up her search as follows:
“I have come to regard our juggler, or his art at least, as the metaphor for it all: millions of nucleotides in continuous motion, tossed up, generation after generation, and scattered by the wind and by warriors, by the kidnapped and the curious, the hungry, the greedy, the pious, the scared and the lovesick. The forbears of us all.”
P.S. The history of the single-braid hairstyle shown on the cover is revealed near the end of the book: this kind of anecdotal information makes this book a joy as well as a wealth of information!