Saturday, January 13, 2024

Off the Shelf: The Forever Witness


With all the social media prompts and promotions lately, it seems the genealogy meme for this new year is writing your ancestors' stories. I picked up this handy list from a now-nameless social site providing twelve "details the best biographers include that you can add to your ancestor's story." The list includes suggestions like adding a "description of the house and/or farm," focusing on the geography of the land, or explaining what it was like to travel from one place to another during a specific ancestor's life.

As I was sharing that list with members of our local genealogical society, I happened to be deep in the midst of catching up on my latest read, a forensic genealogy book published in 2022. Nearly halfway through the book, I realized the very details on that list of writing tips were part of what prevented me, for hours at a time, from putting the book down. The author had this way of making me feel as if I were there with the main characters, driving down the road as they embarked on their adventure or, after they disappeared, getting to know the supporting characters as they learned the awful truth of what happened next.

No surprise here, learning that the author is Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Edward Humes, for this is not a fictional whodunit of the genre lately becoming popular among genealogy hobbyists. This book is The Forever Witness: How DNA and Genealogy Solved a Cold Case Double Murder, tracing the stalled investigation of the 1987 international case involving two brutally murdered Canadians, Tanya Van Cuylenborg and Jay Cook, somewhere in northwest Washington state.

Eventually, the book's narrative will focus on the historic application of DNA testing to the case which reversed that stalled investigation. Yet even halfway into the story, the many strands interwoven into the telling of the incident skillfully set the stage and draw the reader into the process.

Right now, I'm reading for the experience, and letting the story carry me along. Later, I'll go back to capture some of the DNA details which will serve as useful references and analogies for my own work. And I'll certainly re-examine those story-telling techniques the author employs which seem the most compelling in drawing me in, page after page.

While case studies of forensic genealogy applications have always caught my attention, this book goes far beyond the academics of the approach. It gifts us with a study bathed in skillful devotion to the little details in life which can allow us to feel what life was like for the people we are studying—whether victims of high-profile crimes, or those elusive ancestors we'd like to bring back to life, at least on paper.

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