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The Genetic Strand: Exploring a Family History Through DNA Hardcover – Deckle Edge, November 6, 2007

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The Genetic Strand: Exploring a Family History Through DNA + The Sweet Hell Inside: The Rise of an Elite Black Family in the Segregated South (National Book Award Winner)
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This Book Is Bound with "Deckle Edge" Paper
You may have noticed that some of our books are identified as "deckle edge" in the title. Deckle edge books are bound with pages that are made to resemble handmade paper by applying a frayed texture to the edges. Deckle edge is an ornamental feature designed to set certain titles apart from books with machine-cut pages. See a larger image.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; First Edition edition (November 6, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743266587
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743266581
  • Product Dimensions: 5.6 x 1 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,281,838 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Some locks of hair found in the secret compartment of a family heirloom was the catalyst for Ball, a National Book Award winner for Slaves in the Family, to embark on a genetic family history. He became animated with the thought that through DNA analysis of the hair he could discover some truths about his Ball ancestry, such as whether his father's maternal grandmother, Kate Fuller, was part African-American. As he relates his experiences with various DNA labs, Ball also describes the hard science behind DNA forensics, informed by conversations with experts in the field. But the account's drama comes from a finding that suggests a Native American ancestor in his family tree. Another lab contradicts this evidence, and the error affects Ball profoundly, leading him to rail about the fallibility of science, the dangers of making science the new religion and scientists, specifically molecular biologists, the new priests. Forensic DNA testing has become hot (exemplified by Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s televised testing results), and as Ball's own emotions show, is also playing into Americans' sense of identity. Ball's tale will intrigue America's many amateur genealogists and also serve as a cautionary tale. (Nov. 6)
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"Powerful...Ball contributes to at least partly reclaiming the humanity slavery worked to obliterate. He reminds us that slavery was not just about economics or politics or even abstract questions of morality but most essentially about the millions of human beings imprisoned within its chains." -- Drew Gilpin Faust, The New York Times Book Review

"Ball is a first-rate scholar-journalist.... Outside Faulkner, it will be hard to find a more poignant, powerful account of a white man struggling with his and his nation's past." -- Shane Harrison, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Customer Reviews

Some descriptions carry a slightly negative tone which isn't called for in such a book.
Loves the View
"Probably there were madness genes rattling at the bottom of the family tin, but the instruments didn't reach deep enough to find them."
Cynthia K. Robertson
Some rabbis have ancestors who are rabbis, but this is roughly similar to a doctor's son becoming a doctor.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

18 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Margot on January 16, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Ball begins with an interesting idea - using a collection of old family hair to enrich his knowledge of his family's past. Unfortunately, the book is poorly organized and adds confusion rather than clarity to a newcomer's understanding of genealogy. Ball makes several errors which indicate that he really doesn't understand what he is doing. The editor should have spotted these errors, but somehow chose to ignore them, suggesting that the book was poorly researched and edited.

When Ball finds a collection of family hair in an old family desk, he wonders what the hair can tell him about the past. He explains that a DNA analysis of human hair is limited to the mitochondiral DNA, which he correctly notes is passed from mother to child. The mtDNA can only tell about a person's ancestors along the female line - child to mother to mother's mother, and so on. Ball seems to understand this, until a final suggestion he makes (p.104) in explaining what appears at that time to be a Native American ancestor in his family tree. He asks, "Could a Huguenot woman have become pregnant from a rape, and, afterward, decided to keep the girl? Twenty years later, this hypothetical daughter would have been marriageable, and with her mother's help, she might have found a way to navigate society. She might have been the strand of Indian DNA smuggled into the white stream." Since mtDNA is inherited only from the mother, this would not be possible. This hypothetical half-Native American girl would have had mtDNA from her white mother. DNA from her Native American father would only be found in her cellular DNA.
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful By John D. Cofield TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on November 24, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Edward Ball comes from a large Southern family with a long history in Charleston, South Carolina. Using packets of hair his ancestors collected from their children and other relatives and then cached in an old desk, he attempted to learn more about his genetic background by having the DNA extracted and analyzed. He used a variety of labs in both North America and Europe, and finished with some answers and a few new puzzles.

One of the deep, dark, secrets of American genealogy is the amount of admixture to be found in most people. There is no such thing as a "pure" Indo-European, Sub-Saharan African, or Native American, though many still maintain that they are racially homogeneous. On the other hand, many who have done a little reading and a little experimenting with DNA research themselves tend to make the assumption that the science is so crystal clear that all the answers are right there, ready to be cheek swabbed and analyzed. Ball does a good job of demonstrating that both assumptions are false. His research indicated possible Native American and Sub-Saharan African ancestry mixed in with his "Nordic" Ball genes, then later indicated that such ancestry might not exist after all. The hair samples sometimes yielded much information, but often remained frustratingly silent. In chronicling his research into his family's past history Ball also gives a good overview of the science behind DNA research, making sense of highly technical terms and jargon so that general readers can get a better sense of what actually takes place in DNA analysis.

As a genealogist with a Southern family background very similar to Ball's, I enjoyed reading his stories about his ancestors and his quest to learn more about their racial makeup.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Suzanne Amara VINE VOICE on September 14, 2008
Format: Hardcover
This book started with so much promise and such an interesting premise---the author finds lots of stored locks of hair in a hidden drawer of a dresser that belonged to his ancestors. He decides to try to have the DNA in the hair tested to find out more about the past of his family.

However, the promise pretty quickly fades away. There are no really interesting results from the hair that hold up, and I get the feeling that the author therefore had to use a lot of filler---long long disgressions about various scientists at the labs he goes to, detailed scientific descriptions which, while informative, don't really fit in with the rest of the book, and then various DNA tests on living family members in order to somehow find SOMETHING interesting.

The most jarring problem with the book for me was the scientific inaccuracies. I have a strong interest in genetics, but am certainly a layman on the topic, but I know the kind of hemophilia that Queen Victoria was a carrier for was NOT a recessive kind, but rather X linked, a huge difference. There are a couple other mistakes of this kind here and there, which always makes me wonder about the parts of the book I am not sure of the facts about---are they correct or not?

The most interesting parts of the book for me were the old family stories. The author has an interesting family past, and he is a good writer overall---I wish he had just written a family history that perhaps had the genetic testing as a small part of the story.
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