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Thursday, April 29, 2021

Approachable DNA/Genealogy Book An Engrossing, Thought-Provoking Read

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

If you hang out here at BBB with any regularity, you know that I'm an adoptive mom as well as an avid genealogist.  I'm so into family history, in fact, that I'm currently working on becoming accredited as a professional genealogist in two regions: U.S. Southwest and U.S. Great Lakes.  COVID has slowed the process, but I'm hoping to finish my testing this year.  I'm not a big tv watcher (I'd rather read, thank you very much!); however, I have been known to binge-watch shows like Finding Your Roots, Genealogy Roadshow, Relative Race, and Who Do You Think You Are?.  I've been quietly researching my adopted daughter's birth family's genealogy since she was born.  Bottom line?  I go nuts over anything related to family history: research, DNA, adoption reunions, family heirlooms, passed-down stories, etc.  Given all that, I was immediately drawn to The Lost Family by Libby Copeland.  How could I resist a book that promised to tick off so many of my favorite reading boxes? 

The book tells the story of Alice Collins Plebuch, a woman who took a DNA test that returned results that were unexpected and perplexing.  To say the least.  The confusing information led her on a journey that required painstaking research, uncomfortable questions, and an almost complete overhaul of everything she knew about herself and her family.  Copeland uses Plebuch's incredible story as a framework for discussing the relatively new technology of DNA home-testing, which allows anyone to spit in a tube, upload very personal information to a very public forum, and share all the secrets hiding in their genes with the world.  While doing so has led to joyous reunions between biological family members, answers to heart-wrenching questions, and even the bringing to justice of the Golden State Killer, they've also been the catalyst for broken hearts, renewed feelings of abandonment, privacy breaches, and the revelation of long-buried secrets that maybe should have been kept that way.  Copeland poses some deep, thought-provoking questions on the subject like:
  • Should the public posting of DNA results be more regulated to protect those who are not actively seeking answers?
  • What makes a family?
  • How much does one's genetics really influence the person they become?
  • Should DNA results be automatically shared with law enforcement agencies in the pursuit of greater-good justice-seeking in spite of privacy issues?
  • Do the children of adoption and sperm donation have the right to seek their birth families, regardless of whether those people want to be contacted?
Copeland's exploration of these questions and more makes for fascinating food for thought.  If your book club is looking for a discussion-worthy read, you just found it!

Although The Lost Family digs into complex science and even more complicated philosophical questions, it's actually a very readable book.  Copeland's style is laidback and conversational, making her book a great pick for experienced genealogists as well as family history newbies.  The stories she includes—about Alice and many others—makes her subject intimate and personal.  It's not often that I race through a volume of non-fiction, but I cruised through this one eagerly lapping up every word.  Needless to say, I enjoyed the read immensely.  

I choose paper books over their e-versions on most occasions, but I purposely bought this one digitally so that I could mark it up and easily search for memorable passages.  Here are a few of my favorites:

"Secrets, we are all discovering, have a propulsive power all their own, and time and complicity only make them more powerful.  Once you decide to keep a secret, the secret maintains a circular logic, even when circumstances change.  Many seekers say the fact of the secret is the thing that nags at them, more than the nature of the secret itself" (3-4).

"The sheer girth of those numbers means that even if you don't choose to send away for a kit, it increasingly doesn't matter.  Especially in the United States, where DNA testing is more popular than anywhere else, all of us are already drawn in by the decisions of other people who share our genetic material—people who, in many cases, we've never met.  As bioethicist Thomas H. Murray told me, 'You don't get to opt out.'" (4) 

"We look for ourselves in our family histories and in our genes, but such things alone do not make identity.  We human beings are the meaning-makers, each of us a product of a particular time and place, with ideas about what we value and, indeed, what we hope to find when we look" (28).

"...when one person spits into a vial or swabs her cheek, her whole family is implicated" (50).

"For science to use someone's body to attempt to disprove something sacred to that person—is that the uncovering of truth or a violation?" (67).

I could go on, but I'll stop there and just encourage you to read the book for yourself.  Also, I'd love to know your experiences with and feelings on DNA testing.  I find the whole subject utterly fascinating.  My husband, adopted daughter, and I all did ours through Ancestry years ago.  Like Copeland, I was "at once disappointed and relieved not to find any big surprises in my results...boring results can be a blessing" (32).

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of Inheritance by Dani Shapiro and It's All Relative by A.J. Jacobs)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for brief, mild language (no F-bombs) and disturbing subject matter (rape, incest, murder, etc.)

To the FTC, with love:  I bought a copy of The Lost Family with a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger.  Ha ha.


  1. I’ve had this on my TBR for a while, thanks for the reminder.

  2. This book sounds interesting and like it's perfect for you. I didn't realize you are getting certified, that's great!

  3. I have this one on my TBR because I'm fascinated by genealogy as well but didn't know much about it. It sounds fascinating.


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