Life in Possum Holler

Saline County, Arkansas, United States
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19 August 2007

Lisa Alther Home Page

Lisa Alther Home Page

Author of:
Kinfolks--Falling Off the Family Tree: The Search for My Melungeon Ancestors

WGBH Forum Network: Book Note

Kinfolks Amazon Link

Editorial Reviews from Amazon (at link above):
Editorial Reviews
From Booklist
*Starred Review* Trading on the title of her first novel, the best-selling Kinflicks(1976), Alther presents Kinfolks, her first work of nonfiction, a wise, funny inquiry into the complexities of inheritance. A Tennessean with a New Yorker mother and a Virginian father, Alther grew up feeling like the Civil War incarnate and was mystified by her Cadillac-driving grandmother, who, for all her pride in her blueblood Virginia heritage, refused to contact her back-home relatives. But what induces Alther to turn genealogical sleuth is a cousin's declaration that he is a Melungeon. Melungeons are reputedly multiracial Appalachians sometimes burdened with six-fingered hands and a reputation for the evil eye. Controversial theories suggest African, Portuguese, Turkish, and/or Native American descent. High-spirited Alther's curiosity sends her to dusty courthouse archives, Native American casinos, and locales across Europe and Turkey, and her findings enable her to bring historical Appalachia into focus as a landing place for refugees from all over Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Drolly hilarious and incisive, Alther attempts to decode family secrets, gets to know self-declared Melungeons, and considers her unexpected ties to Pocahontas, ultimately presenting a provocative take on the South's obsession with skin color. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Library Journal, April 1, 2007
"Lively, engaging . . . The journey is a delight, full of arch observations . . . Of more than just regional interest."

Book Description
In this dazzling, hilarious memoir, best-selling author of Kinflicks Lisa Alther chronicles her search for the missing--often mysterious--branches of her family tree.
Most of us grow up thinking we know who we are and where we come from. Lisa Alther's mother hailed from New York, her father from Virginia, and every day they reenacted the Civil War at home in East Tennessee. Then one night a grizzled babysitter with brown teeth told Lisa about the Melungeons: six-fingered child-snatchers who hid in cliff caves outside town. Forgetting about these creepy kidnappers until she had a daughter of her own, Lisa learned that the Melungeons were actually a group of dark-skinned people--some with extra thumbs--living in isolated pockets in the South. But who were they? Where did they come from? Were they the descendants of Sir Walter Raleigh's Lost Colony, or of shipwrecked Portuguese or Turkish sailors? Or were they the children of European frontiersmen, African slaves, and Native Americans? Theories abounded, but no one seemed to know for sure.

Learning that a cousin had had his extra thumbs removed, Lisa set out to discover who these mysterious Melungeons really were and why her grandmother wouldn't let her visit their Virginia relatives. Were there Melungeons in the family tree? Lisa assembled a hoard of clues over the years, but DNA testing finally offered answers.

Part sidesplitting travelogue, part how--and how not--to climb your family tree, Kinfolks shimmers with wicked humor, illustrating just how wacky and wonderful our human family really is.

Driving Yourself Nuts Over Six Fingered Kinfolks

Driving Yourself Nuts Over Six Fingered Kinfolks

What should you do when your baby sitter threatens you with the six- fingered boogeyman? Look for him, of course. That's what Lisa Alther does to overcome her "chronic identity crisis" in a delightfully wicked journey of discovery of self, in Kinfolks - Falling Off the Family Tree: The Search for My Melungeon Ancestors.

This memoir is interesting from three perspectives. One, it underscores our obsession with race. We need to know who we are in terms of what we are. The other is our need to belong, to claim identity in terms of a particular mix of ethnicity and concrete "mother" group(s), even when the author's self-described history dates back several generations in this country. Lastly, this book is a quick but intriguing read of the lost history of several groups of people who lived, were brought or came to the southeastern United States.

Who are the Melungeons? As Alther herself says toward the end of the book, "After a series of tests, I learned that I'd been walking around for six decades in a body constructed by DNA originating in Central Asia, the eastern Mediterranean, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, and sub-Saharan Africa. This in addition to the contributions from England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Holland, Germany, and Native America, which I already knew about through conventional genealogical methods.

For weeks after receiving these results, I wandered around in a daze, humming "We Are the World." A lifelong suspicion that I fit nowhere turned out not to be just idle paranoia. But once the reality of my panglobal identity sank in, I realized that I'd finally found my long-sought group. It consists of mongrels like myself who know that we belong nowhere -- and everywhere. This book chronicles my six-decade evolution from bemused Appalachian misfit to equally bemused citizen of the world."

Alther's story is woven with droll wit and affection. Stay on the ride with her, as she embarks on her decade long wild goose chase to ferret out deeply buried dark secrets, and you won't be disappointed.

Kinfolks - Falling Off the Family Tree: The Search for My Melungeon Ancestors.
Author: Lisa Alther
Publisher: Arcade Publishing
Date first published: 2007
ISBN-10: 1559708328
ISBN-13: 978-1559708326

18 August 2007

Latest Genealogy Tools Create a Need to Know - New York Times

Latest Genealogy Tools Create a Need to Know - New York Times:

"Katherine Holden’s family had long kept what she called “a deep dark secret.” When the family discussed its roots, there were hints, but no outright discussion, of a great-grandmother who had lived in South Dakota and was the equivalent of native royalty: the putative daughter of an American Indian chief. But her family never spoke in detail of their heritage, and it was only when Dr. Holden, a Connecticut physician, became interested in her family tree that she verified her lineage. “I was fairly surprised to find her name in the 1900 U.S. Census in an American Indian orphanage under her childhood name,” she said." [click on link for rest of story]

04 August 2007

Billingsley to speak at AGS Fall Seminar

Arkansas Genealogical SocietyFall Seminar 2007
Friday, October 19th & Saturday, October 20th
Pleasant Valley Church of Christ
10900 N. Rodney Parham Rd., Little Rock, AR

Friday, October 19th Speaker: Carolyn Earle Billingsley, Ph.D
Friday Night Course Information . . .

*Melungeons and Other Mixed Race Groups: Bi- or tri-racial heritage is often overlooked by genealogists. But many of us unknowingly have a mixed heritage. This lecture sheds light on groups of people like Melungeons, who illustrate the complexity of researching based on an assumption of race.

*The Reality of Researching Your Indian Ancestors: Rather than teaching how to trace Five Civilized Tribe ancestors through the normal avenues, this lecture gets real. Most Native Americans did not sign up on the Indian Rolls, and, thus, genealogists must use other methods to “prove” Indian ancestry.

Saturday, October 20th Speaker: Sharon Tate Moody, CG
Saturday Night Course Information . . .

*If Living Were a Crime: Evidence our Ancestors Left at the Scene: Most of our ancestors lived ordinary lives and are difficult to document. Case studies will demonstrate a new strategy of reconstructing the lives of ordinary ancestors by approaching their lives as “crime scenes.”

*The Law: Portal to Understanding Ancestor Documents: Throughout their lives and even after their deaths, our ancestors were controlled and guided by the law. Actual documents will be explored to gain a working knowledge of legalese and better understanding of what records say. Techniques for conducting basic legal research on their documents will be discussed.

*Airing the Family Laundry: This lecture will show you how to go beyond the Internet and dig through court records to uncover family skeletons or secrets that abound in the old case files. Case studies will walk you through the steps to find these seldom-used records.

*No Ring? No License? Are They Married? Are common law marriages any more than shacking up or living in sin? Are they “real” marriages? This lecture will present an actual situation in courtroom argument style. The audience will sit as a jury to hear the evidence and vote a decision.

Additional Information: Contact Jan Davenport, 1 Cinnamon Dr., North Little Rock, AR 72120 or call 501-912-3587. If using email please reference AGS FALL SEMINAR:

Accommodations: Governors Suites, 1501 Merrill Drive, Little Rock, AR 72211. Call 501-224-8051 for reservations.

Lunch will be included with Saturday Registration: Soup, sandwich, chips, cookie & drink.

History Lost, History Found: The Search for Hardscramble

Carolyn Earle Billingsley, Ph.D., will speak at the Darraugh Center at the Central Arkansas Library, on 3 October 2007, from 12:00-1:00pm. The forum is the monthly Legacies and Lunch, sponsored by the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies.

Is anybody there?

Is anybody there? - 27 January 2007 - New Scientist:

From New Scientist Print Edition.

I have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and so on. If I drew a family tree going back 10 generations, I would have to make space for a top line of 1024 ancestors. At 30 generations I would expect to see a line of over a billion ancestors. If I tried to research my family back 40 generations (only about 1000 years) I would be searching for the names of vastly more people than have ever lived. This is impossible, of course, but everyone has two parents, so what exactly is wrong with my reasoning?

The simple answer is that people marry their cousins or half-cousins. If you can have shared ancestors at the close proximity of cousin level, then imagine the number of shared ancestors there would be going back 40 generations." . . .

Click on link under title for full article.
From issue 2588 of New Scientist magazine,
27 January 2007, page 97

The Genealogy Craze in America:

Strangled by Roots:
by Steven Pinker, in The New Republic Online
Post date 07.30.07 Issue date 08.06.07

New technologies often have unforeseeable consequences. Michael Faraday could not have anticipated the rise of the electric guitar and its effects on our culture, nor did the inventors of the laser realize they had laid the ground for a thriving industry of tattoo removal. And it is safe to say that Watson and Crick could not have foreseen a day when an analysis of Oprah Winfrey's DNA would tell her that she was descended from the Kpelle people of the Liberian rainforest. 'I feel empowered by this,' she said upon hearing the news, overcoming her disappointment that her ancestors were not Zulu warriors.... "

[To read entire article, click on link. Site egistration required, but is easy and free.]