Pulitzer Prize winner Anthony Shadid, a Middle East correspondent for The New York Times, was an Oklahoman of Lebanese descent. In 2006, faced with a crumbling marriage stateside, Shadid focused on restoring his great-grandfather’s abandoned home in the village of Marjayoun, Lebanon. His book, House of Stone, is as much of a lesson on the political and cultural history of the Ottoman empire as seen from Marjayoun as it is a chronicle of an American trying to conduct the frustrating business of home improvement with local contractors while recreating his “bayt.” A nuanced Arabic word roughly meaning home, a bayt is the place of one’s roots. Mr. Shadid’s poignant story merging his family’s past and present was published posthumously; he died of an asthma attack this past February while attempting to leave Syria on horseback. Surprisingly, especially in light of the beautifully detailed architectural descriptions of the home, the book does not include photographs.
Also dealing with family history but on a far lighter note is Megan Smolenyak’s Hey America, Your Roots Are Showing. Smolenyak is a professional genealogist and chief family historian at Ancestry.com. Her clients have included the U.S. Army (finding primary next-of-kin for soldiers,) the FBI (civil rights cold case crime-solving,) the BBC (tracing family members of sailors who died on the USS Monitor), and even her own curiosity, as she sketches the family tree of Michelle Obama. These assignments and more are covered in her latest book as she utilizes the traditional paper trail and oral interviews, supplemented by DNA testing, to solve family mysteries. Entertaining but always respectful toward her subjects, Smolenyak finds an unlikely link between Al Sharpton and Strom Thurmond, and debunks the myth that immigrants’ surnames were mangled at Ellis Island by uncaring clerks. Hey America, Your Roots are Showing is an enjoyable look at genealogical detective work.