A review of Faces of America: How 12 Extraordinary People Discovered their Pasts by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. appeared in The Boston Globe.
The central lesson of genealogy is both banal and profound: We are all related. The human race is a sea of distant cousins separated only by geography and circumstance. OK, so what? Making this biological fact meaningful is the challenge facing any writer attempting family history. Typically, the project takes one of two forms: a specific story of an individual family (as in the case of Edward Ball’s “Slaves in the Family’’) or a global approach to human evolution (Spencer Wells’s “The Journey of Man’’). In “Faces of America,’’ Henry Louis Gates Jr. has found a middle path: He applies the most rigorous genealogical and genetic tools to the family histories of 12 ethnically distinct Americans, and in doing so touches on the history of not only these individuals but on the human race itself. For anyone who enjoyed Gates’s popular PBS programs “African American Lives” or the NBC series “Who Do You Think You Are?”, “Faces of America,’’ based on a second Gates TV project, will serve as another enjoyable and educational installment of America’s newest pastime: celebrity genealogy.
Gates’s breezy, intimate style and obvious affection for his subjects results in a book that is the bionic version of that old fourth-grade family tree assignment, thanks to the support of a world-class Rolodex and Harvard researchers and geneticists. It’s fun.”