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Exploring a Family History Through DNA

(Simon and Schuster, 2007)


    In The Genetic Strand, Edward Ball turns his eyes on the microcosm of the human genome, using DNA science to investigate the origins of one family, his own. What is the legacy of a family’s history—in its genes? 

     In 2000, after a decade in New York City, Ball bought a house in Charleston, South Carolina and furnished it with heirloom pieces from his relatives. In one old desk he was startled to discover a secret drawer, sealed perhaps since the Civil War, in which someone had hidden a trove of family hair, with each lock of hair labeled and dated during the 1800s. The strange find propelled him to investigate: what might DNA science reveal about the people — Ball’s family members, long dead — to whom the hair had belonged? Did the hair come from lily-white relatives, as family tradition insisted? How can genetic tests explain personal identity?

     Part crime-scene investigation, part genealogical tour, The Genetic Strand is a personal odyssey into genes and family. The story takes the reader into forensics labs where technicians screen remains, through genetics breakthroughs like DNA fingerprinting, and into rooms where fathers nervously await paternity results. It also summons the writer’s entertaining and idiosyncratic family, like Ball’s antebellum predecessor, Aunt Betsy, who published nutty books on good Southern society; Kate Fuller, the enigmatic ancestor who may have introduced African genes into the Ball family pool; and the author’s first cousin Catherine, very much alive, who donates a cheek swab from a mouth more attuned to sweet iced tea than DNA sampling. 

     Writing gracefully but pacing his story like a whodunit, Edward Ball tracks genes shared across generations, adding suspense and a philosopher’s touch to what the scientists and Nobel laureates tell us. A beguiling DNA tale, The Genetic Strand reaches toward a new form of writing — the genetic memoir.


The Genetic Strand
The Genetic Strand

“Edward Ball is an elegant writer and consummate researcher, navigating through complicated subjects like DNA fingerprinting and the use of mitochondrial DNA…. Anyone intrigued by family history will find The Genetic Strand an engaging yarn.” 

    —Washington Post


“Intrinsically interesting… Writing as fluidly as in his previous books, Ball’s discoveries enlighten DNA testing.” —Booklist

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