I was an avid genealogist for several years, a while ago. Many nights I'd be up until 2 am, despite having to get up for work in only 5 hours, because I'd be "on a roll". I'd be uncovering a stream of information about newly discovered ancestors, going farther and farther back. One line even got traced back to the tenth century. The key was hitting European nobility in your lines - once you found that, you were in through the door to a rich world of intricate genealogy that was often well documented.
"Brick walls", in which no further progress could be made on a particular line, became more and more common as I exhausted the on-line sources. It was the lure of the 'Eureka!' moment that propelled me. Carolyn Abraham in this book compares this to the addicting playing of slot machines. Every once in a while you are rewarded with celebratory bells and whistles and a few coins, and this encourages you to keep playing. Nothing beat the immense satisfaction of solving a mystery. In one instance, I was able to 'find' a long-lost relative who disappeared in the 1830s, never to be seen again by his family in England. The scoundrel had absconded to Canada and set up house with a new wife and family, but the link was never found until the 21st century. The descendants of his English family were gobsmacked when we made contact. They always wondered what happened to him. Sweet.
So I really get this story. Tracing the genealogy of her own family with roots in China, Jamaica, India, England...it seems to be not possible. But Abraham is a journalist with a good science background and the requisite degree of obsessiveness. It takes many many hours of patient searching through online archives, databases, old newspapers, genealogy trees to find just snippets of relevant information. Then she started to also use the information gleaned from genetic analysis of buccal swabs of family members. Genetic genealogy has become big business in the last few years. DNA analysis sometimes helps to break down the brick walls.
This was a fascinating description of how she was able to use this technology, and its pitfalls and limitations.
But she keeps the emphasis on solving the mysteries of her family tree, and muses about the ethics of genetic digging (many people think some things are best left undisturbed; 'false paternity', is said to be about 10% -- your dad may not be your dad).
A fascinating and unusual account of what it means to be a family.