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Morro Bay author engages reader in quest for identity

Jeff Wheelwright holds a copy of ‘The Wandering Gene and the Indian Princess’ at his Morro Bay home.
Jeff Wheelwright holds a copy of ‘The Wandering Gene and the Indian Princess’ at his Morro Bay home. jmellom@thetribunenews.com

You won’t often find book reviews of local authors in this space for the simple reason that we have so many fine authors living in the area that to single one out would do an injustice to the others.

That said, I’m making an exception for Jeff Wheelwright’s latest book, “The Wandering Gene and the Indian Princess: Race, Religion and DNA.”

Despite the length of its title, the book’s a terrific and amazingly fast read as it chronicles a 2,500-year odyssey — embodied by a woman named Shonnie Medina — that takes the reader from ancient Palestine, to Spain and the Inquisition, and then to the American Southwest. Talk about breadth of scope. It’s six degrees of separation writ large and questions the essence of identity.

A former science editor of Life magazine who moved to Morro Bay from New York in the fall of 1992, Wheelwright’s written books on topics as diverse as the Exxon Valdez oil spill (“Degrees of Disaster”) and Gulf War illnesses (“The Irritable Heart”). The Sunday New York Times Book Review reviewed both books favorably.

His magazine articles, almost exclusively science-related and published in such august periodicals as Smithsonian and Discover, have run the gamut from a marine biologist’s irresistible attraction to a giant Humboldt squid to the proposed nuclear waste facility at Yucca Mountain.

Although you’d think such topics would be as dry as a popcorn poot in a powder house, the singularly engaging quality of his writing is that it is, well, so darn engaging — regardless of the science he dissects.

As the Kirkus Reviews notes of the book: “The cast is large and the story covers millennia, but with Medina and her family at its center, it is still small and personal An intriguing tale told with gusto.”

For instance, in writing about sense of place and the genetic code of sunflowers, Wheelwright notes with robust: “Along roads in the San Luis Valley you can find scraggly, foot-tall sunflowers, their leaves wizened, barely flowering in cracks of asphalt, while a few miles away, lush six-footers are hulking on a floodplain of Culebra Creek.”

The San Luis Valley and Culebra figure prominently in Wheelwright’s book. It’s the area of southern Colorado where Shonnie, a beautiful 28-year-old woman of mixed Hispanic and Indian heritage, who came from a Hispanos Catholic background, died of breast cancer in 1999.

Oddly, even somewhat impossibly on the surface, her variety of breast cancer mutation was due to a gene known as BRCA1.185delAG — which is found almost exclusively among Jewish women. And Shonnie wasn’t the only woman within the valley to contract the disease; there was a clustering of such breast cancers among family histories of the Hispanos women.

The how and why so intrigued Wheelwright, after he heard a brief reference to the phenomena of San Luis Valley at a seminar on genetics, that he set out to unravel the mystery.

He’d been writing about genetics since 2001, when his interest was sparked by the Human Genome Project, and he was casting about for a genetic project that was “broad enough but not over sciency.” He contacted the editors at Smithsonian and they put him in the valley in 2007.

In the following couple of years, he applied for and received a prestigious Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship to the tune of some $50,000 to write “The Wandering Gene.” And a tale of wander it is.

Wheelwright traces the mutant gene from ancient Palestine through the Jewish people of the Ashkenazi branch to the Sephardic of medieval Spain, where the Jews were expelled (or converted to Catholicism) in 1492. The story then rolls on to the cultural intermixing of secret Jewish Spanish colonists with Pueblo Indians between 1600 and 1800, to Protestants arriving in San Luis Valley in the 20th century, to the conversion of Shonnie and her family to the Jehovah’s Witness faith.

What’s somewhat extraordinary is that Wheelwright is able to span this breadth of genetic-historical time in 230 pages.

In a lengthy review in the Wall Street Journal, Charles Mann, most recently the author of “1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created,” wrote of the book: “As William Blake saw the world in a grain of sand, Mr. Wheelwright has seen in Shonnie Medina’s brief life the tangle in which we are enmeshed, as we learn ever more about ourselves and are ever less clear about what to do ­with the knowledge.”

Or, as Publisher’s Weekly wrote of “The Wandering Gene”: “(It’s) a meditative exploration of the science of racial connectedness.”

Indeed, six degrees of separation is closer than we know.

Book signing

Jeff Wheelwright will be giving a reading and book signing at St. Stephen’s Church’s Parish Hall on Sunday from noon to 1:30 p.m. St. Stephen’s is located at 1344 Nipomo St., in San Luis Obispo. Enter the back of the church from the parking lot on Pismo Street. Questions? Call Coalesce Bookstore at 772-2880.

About the book

“The Wandering Gene and the Indian Princess: Race, Religion and DNA” by Jeff Wheelwright (hardcover, 230 pages, $26.95, W.W. Norton & Co.)

Reach Bill Morem at bmorem@thetribunenews.com or at 781-7852.