Book Review: Who Do You Think You Are?

Who Do You Think You Are?:  The Essential Guide To Tracing Your Family History, A Companion To The NBC Series, by Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak

If you’ve ever seen the television show Who Do You Think You Are, which aired on NBC for three seasons and then was picked up after cancellation by TLC [1], where it has continued to run at least through 2016, the premise of the show is straightforward enough.  A famous or notable person has a desire to find out more about some aspect of their family history and the result is televised sleuthing through cemeteries, archives, where someone is found who achieved something of lasting value, or some dark secret is uncovered that demonstrates some sort of evil, and the end result is a person coming to terms with a part of the past that they did not previously know.  It’s an effective television show, and I have enjoyed it myself.  One of the episodes I have seen, although it is not commented on in this book, dealt with someone who I have seen claimed as a maternal ancestor who supposedly was a Mayflower passenger, only he actually arrived in New England in 1629 on a vastly more obscure ship.  This book is a lot like the show, in that it is an encouragement to mostly web-based research and the occasional field trip and is written from a breezy and humorous point of view, with a fondness for black sheep and uncovering family skeletons.  The book’s target audience are those who are interested in genealogy [2], and if you are a part of that target, this book will likely be of great pleasure, not least because it deals with the humorous nature of someone who married someone else with an extremely rare last name, which prompts obvious questions about whether the author married her cousin (spoiler alert:  she didn’t).

The contents of this book are pretty light compared to some texts, like the more demanding Great Course on the same subject, but the book is an effective and entertaining encouragement to those who looking to engage in the process of hunting down their family history like sleuths, about which I would like to say more later.  After an introduction the author encourages readers to prepare for their ancestor hunt.  Then the author talks about looking online at various resources, learning to love the census, dealing with the vital statistics of birth, marriage, and death (usually in reverse order), examining whether relatives served in the military, looking across the pond at the old country roots of ancestors, before closing with chapters that offer a discussion of the best of the rest of the resources that are available (including local courts), what it looks like to sleuth, and what work one needs to do to pass on one’s research to others for future benefit.  The book is hilarious, and also includes plenty of discussion of some stars who are photographed on the book’s cover like show producer Lisa Kudrow (of Friends fame), Spike Lee, and Matthew Broderick, among others in an inset.  The book even taught me an entertaining new word, “censuswhacking,” used to describe the idle search for genealogical information of people because of famous or unusual names for one’s own personal enjoyment.  Consider that a habit I plan on continuing now that I have a name for it.

Aside from its humor value, and the way that the author used various terms that made genealogy a lot more fun, as mentioned above, this book is noteworthy for another reason that is worth discussing at some length.  Professionally, I am a data analyst who seeks to find insight and patterns among what to others may seem like random data.  Among my more striking and unusual tastes as a reader is a certain fondness for mystery novels [3].  This particular book managed to tie some of those interests together, by reminding me that a genealogist is someone who is a sleuth with regards to family history, someone who seeks to uncover the truth, often cloaked in mystery and deception, of the past of one’s own family, with the knowledge that there will be thrills as well as disappointments and even scandal.  We better understand ourselves by understanding where we came from, and that requires an openness to hunting and exploring and sleuthing and being willing to accept that what one finds may well be intensely shocking, and will allow one to find a better place within the world, and an understanding of the context of one’s background.  This is a worthwhile endeavor, and a worthwhile book to encourage others to take it up.

[1] It should be noted that the American television show I am referring to was a spin-off of a British original, and that other versions of the show exist in other countries as well.

[2] See, for example:



About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Book Review: Who Do You Think You Are?

  1. Pingback: Mysteries Of The Bible: Why Does The Bible Talk So Much About Genealogy | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Tracing Your European Roots | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: Book Review: Tracing Your Irish & British Roots | Edge Induced Cohesion

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