Ryan Littrell’s Reunion: A Search for Ancestors is a fascinating story that is hard to put down. Not only does he describe his research efforts, he also tells the history of the MacDonald clan who are his ancestors. While describing his research effort going back generation by generation, he brings the clan’s history forward until both stories meet with the ancestor who immigrated to America. Ryan accepted my request for an interview and provides more insight on the book and his research efforts.
What inspired you to intersperse your research going back with the clan’s history coming forward?
I don’t know that any particular thing prompted me to write the book like this—that is, telling my story alongside the story of my ancestors. I just think that once you begin searching for your ancestors, you find yourself wondering what they were like, and who they really were. The next thing you know, you’re seeing how their history might be entangled in yours.
Are you bitten by the genealogy bug or did this project satisfy your interest in family history?
I’ve definitely been bitten. As soon as you discover an ancestor, you’re discovering a whole new set of stories—not just that one ancestor’s story, but also the story of her father, her mother, and the story of her whole family. Soon you’re searching through records in a whole new place, maybe even a whole new country. And the further back you go, the more ancestors there are to discover. So the search is open-ended, and that beginning question—“Where do I come from?”—never really goes away. You never get a final answer.
You appear to have developed the common fascination with graveyards most of us enjoy. How about battlegrounds?
A lot of people would probably say that a battleground leaves them with some of the same feelings as a graveyard. There’s a sense of presence, all around you. I’m thinking of when I visited the site of the Battle of Culloden, which plays an important part in my book. This was where an army, mostly made up of Scottish Highlanders, made their final stand against the British government in 1746. I walked along the line, and saw the stones that marked where clansmen were buried, according to tradition. And there’s just no way to put that into words. It’s too big.
What was your most surprising discovery related to this project?
That’s a tough question, because there were so many discoveries along the way. But if I had to pick one, it would be that email revealing my uncle’s DNA results: Each person who matched my uncle’s DNA was descended from a single family that lived for many generations in one particular spot in the Scottish Highlands. My whole life, I’d had no clue where this part of my family had come from. But suddenly, with one cheek swab from Uncle Chuck, we knew the truth.
Have you considered writing your grandmother’s story? The little bit you wrote tells me she was a fascinating lady.
Thanks for that, and I hope the book gives a sense of what she was like. I may write more about her in the future, but I also think that this book is very much about her, even when it doesn’t mention her by name. After all, it’s about the search for my grandma’s ancestors, the story of her family. She’s my link to those people, and so she’s on every page.