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While reading Iowa City writer Lori Erickson’s beguiling new book, “The Soul of the Family Tree,” I thought of what George Bernard Shaw once said about genealogy: “If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you might as well make it dance.”
In fact, Dancing with Skeletons would make a good subtitle for Erickson’s book, which comes at a good time for all those newly hatched genealogy buffs who have used the pandemic to research their family trees. It also appeals to longtime genealogists who may be surprised by how Erickson adds new layers of meaning to their hobby.
“The Soul of the Family Tree” (Westminster John Knox Press, 220 pages) goes way beyond the begats with its deep dive into how the spirit of a family endures from generation to generation. Erickson poses a provocative question: “In the end, which is more important: our physical characteristics or our inner lives? Whether we can trace our ancestors back several centuries or whether we see ourselves as part of a long line of souls, each adding our individual spark to the flame of a much greater spirit?”
This question resonated with me. I named my daughter “Kate” after a great-aunt who was a gifted seamstress and who rose above the dire circumstances caused by her husband’s abusive alcoholism by using her clever needle to raise her family with queenly dignity. So I had no trouble answering Erickson’s query about the import of physical characteristics versus character when we look back at our ancestors. Though the large dark eyes that run in my family look lovely in fading photos of Aunt Kate, her spirit is even more captivating.
Erickson is right, too, about the sense of recognition one gets when finding out what one’s forbears felt passionately about, and how knowing more about them can deepen our spiritual lives. When I took a DNA test that revealed I have more Irish ancestry than I thought, I understood why I so resonate with a line from a Marianne Moore poem, Spenser’s Ireland: “I am troubled, I’m dissatisfied, I’m Irish.”
While reading Erickson’s book, I was interested to learn that unlike mine, her blood did not always stir with tales of family derring-do. In fact, as a teen growing up in the little Norwegian American town of Decorah, she mocked rommegrot (bland Norwegian pudding), cared little about her immigrant farmer forbears, and referred to the town’s annual ethnic celebration, Nordic Fest, as “Nordic Fester.” Now, though, she is proud of her hardscrabble ancestors and considers Gudrid the Far Traveler her spirit guide. Lori made Gudrid’s acquaintance almost literally by accident while on a road trip through Iceland with her faithful husband Bob, a retired professor of philosophy who serves as her chauffeur and chronicles their travels on his popular Instagram account (@bob.sessions).
Lori and Gudrid meet cute
Stopping at a roadside park where Erickson looked in vain for a restroom, she relieved herself on the lee side of a rock and soon after doing so was captivated by a statue of Gudrid. Gudrid’s far-flung adventures are chronicled in Icelandic sagas, and she was renowned for her courage, wisdom and kindness. Lori writes, “After taking care of my business, I looked with interest at a statue that stood nearby. It showed a strong and confident-looking woman standing on the top of a stylized representation of a Viking longboat. On her shoulder perched a child, whom she steadied with one hand as she looked off into the distance with a determined gaze.”
A sister-in-law of Leif Erickson, Gudrid gave birth to the first child of European descent in the New World, sailed to Denmark, and walked to Rome on pilgrimage. Like Gudrid, author Erickson makes it look easy. She delivers books on travel and spirituality every two or three years like a midcentury housewife popping out babies. Her other books include “Near the Exit: Travels with the Not-So-Grim Reaper,” a clear-eyed look at death that makes life seem all the more precious, and “Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles and God.” In this radiant new book, she brings a light heart, an old soul and a deep understanding to her subject of how tracing our genealogy can deepen our spiritual lives.