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The Wandering Gene and the Indian Princess: Race, Religion, and DNA Hardcover – January 16, 2012
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With a novelist's gift for story and insight, an artist's appreciation for the stark beauty of the Southwest, and a passion for scientific investigation, Wheelwright addresses the thorny implications of genetics and portrays a family bravely facing a tragic consequence of a long-hidden legacy.
From breast cancer to secret Jewish rituals, hidden links signify unlikely kinships in this meditative exploration of racial connectedness....[A] sensitive account of how a modern identity is woven from ancient physical and spiritual strands.
Wheelwright is a marvelously intelligent writer with a lyrical bent that complements his scientific rigor. His compassionate account of such complex subjects is both engaging and enlightening.
...clear-eyed journalism and his deft handling of so many different, complex strands -- the science, the history, the stories of Shonnie and her family, thorny issues of race and religion -- are Wheelwright's real achievement.
From the Back Cover
"At once an involving mystery, a tale of love and tragedy, an interreligious adventure, and a scientific quest, all set against a sere and stunning Southwestern landscape. A finely crafted, compassionate, fascinating book."
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Many history buffs know that Spain had an ancient Golden Age in which the ruling Muslims created a society tolerant of Jews and other peoples that allowed the flowering of philosophy, literature, poetry and other scholarship. After the passing of that era many Jews remained in Spain, enduring periods of persecution and forced conversion to Christianity followed eventually by the creation of the Spanish Inquisition. During this time some families of Conversos, the Jews who had converted to Christianity and were now known as New Christians, achieved distinguished rank and were among the Spaniards who went in conquest of the New World. Then in 1492 all Jews were expelled from Spain, leading to a further influx of Jewish families to the New World (in addition to many other destinations). A small portion of these people, quite unbeknownst to themselves, were carrying that fearsome gene that causes breast cancer most often, but also cervical and prostate cancer. Long identified as an Ashkenazic gene, scientists now know that it predates those divisions of the Jewish population and exists in Jews of Sephardi (Spanish) origin, too.
So now the threads of history, religion, Southwestern American culture, epidemiology, cancer genetics and some of our present day friends and relatives all converge into one incredibly fascinating story. Jeff Wheelwright, a freelance journalist knowledgeable in science, tells the story, leading us from a touching personal story of a young, cancer-stricken Hispano woman and her family who've lived in the same place for 400 years(!), moving on to introduce us to leading researchers, Spanish and Jewish history, and back again to the poignant story of how a single gene can have such a devastating impact on individuals, families and communities. I was struck by how seamlessly the author moved from one scenario to the next, and most remarkably, how beautifully he kept himself in the background, simply offering facts, background and observances for the reader to take in without feeling that he was twisting anything or promoting his own agenda. As a fifth-generation Texan Jew-by-choice who has degrees in social science and public health I was obviously in heaven! But even if just one topic mentioned appeals to you, I urge you to read this book. Beyond the specifics of Wheelwright's story, it can give you a basis for pondering the world we live in in all it's subjectivities as well as the more obvious objectivities. How have our own lives been shaped by political or economic history we are no longer aware of? What unknown stories live in our family backgrounds that are-right now-shaping who we are and how we think? At the beginning of this review I said this book might not be for everyone, but I've changed my mind. It IS for everyone! Read and enjoy!