Friday, May 28, 2021

Genealogy Book Review: "Call Me John," by Michael Schoenholtz

 I love genealogical mysteries, and historical fiction too.  Recently, I read Call Me John, A Genealogical Mystery Based on a True Story, by Michael Schoenholtz and loved the story, and the book.  

The publicity for the book says:

New Jersey, 1928. A 14-year-old boy disappears from his home without a trace - almost forever. Ninety years later, a series of chance DNA matches reveals what became of him. 

John had to grow up quickly - changing his identity, earning a living the hard way, and navigating love, friendship and death during some of the toughest times in American history.

With nothing more than an 8th grade education, his journey takes us through Prohibition, the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, the gold mines of Colorado and the Second World War to eventually become a success in his own right.

Based on a true story.

And some reviews: 

"Michael Schoenholtz blends genealogical research with historical fiction as he tracks the mysterious disappearance of his long lost uncle who forged a seamless new identity to hide his darkest secret. A fast-paced, adeptly told story." - Syril Levin Kline, author

"He has deftly woven together fact and fiction to create a fascinating tale that explores the influence of fate and family through a slice of 20th century history that's punctuated by the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl and World War II. We never escape our roots. But the events of life batter and build us in our drive to shape our own destiny. The book is a page turner. I highly recommend it, especially if you, like so many of us, have a family secret." Lynne Terry, editor of The Lund Report, former NPR correspondent in Paris and reporter for The Oregonian/OregonLive

"I couldn't put this book down. At every turn I looked forward to seeing where "John" would go next. Schoenholtz knows how to keep your attention and keep you eager for more." Helen Raptis, TV Host of AM Northwest, Portland, Oregon.

"A compelling story about how we make a life of the bits and pieces of DNA, decision-making, and circumstance. The main character's life is shaped by all three. The author transports his readers into the lives of his characters and their struggles, plunking them down in the middle of  World War II and other historical events that tested the human spirit. Schoenholtz is one of those rare storytellers who paints with words so effectively, the reader becomes lost in the telling of the tale. I did." Carol Sveilich, author of three books, including: Reflections From a Glass House: A Memoir of Mid-Century Modern Mayhem.

"Call Me John is a story born out of genealogical sleuthing into a decades-long mystery about Great-Uncle Isadore Katz, who at 14 walked away from home and disappeared. Using DNA and other records to begin to unravel the mystery, Schoenholtz provides a fictionalized re-creation of his great-uncle's life. He raises questions about the mutability of identity. Yet, the thread that runs throughout is the human yearning to belong and to make our families proud." - Daphne Bramham, columnist for The Vancouver Sun, author of The Secret Lives of Saints

 It is different, because Michael had only the "facts" - the records - of his father's uncle to use, and could not find all of the details about the man's life.  

Consequently, the author has this disclaimer:

"Although various parts of the book are inspired by real events and people, this is a work of fiction. In order to respect the privacy of the people in John's life, names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner.  All of the names and identifying details of characters are fictitious, except for his immediate family prior to the age of fourteen."

This is a genealogy research story - one based partially on family lore from the author's father and siblings, partially based on painstaking research in a wealth of resources from New Jersey to California, partially by the DNA clues used to find close family relatives and the family ties, and then the author's ability to meld all of that into a believable story that fits the facts of the known family history.

The Introduction to the book notes:

"A few years ago, when I began putting together a family tree, my father, Richard, asked me: 'Why don't you find out what happened to my Uncle Isadore?'  He hoped that I could simply Google his name and find all the answers, but there was no digital trace of him."

If it were just that simple!  But we know that each person has a unique life story, and this one is very different from the stereotypical "born to loving parents - married a wonderful spouse - died a happy man" story.  All of that was true, but the journey was eventful.

From the home in New Jersey, to the streets of New York, across the country on the train through Pittsburgh to Colorado where he married, and finally to California where he lived out his life, except for a stint in the U.S. Army in France during World War II and a vacation with a visit to his old family home in 1960.

The life vignettes are believable, include historical accuracy of events, places and times.  The ending is how we all hope it all ends...

Because of the name change, this story would not have been known except for the DNA testing that led to identification of blood relatives that solved the research challenge.  All family historians face the potential challenge that names were changed throughout time to protect the person involved, and we should always remember that as we do our genealogy research. 

I loved this book and the story.  While it is relatively short (152 pages in the printed version), I recommend it to your reading pleasure! 

NOTE:  The book is available on Amazon in Kindle or Paperback ($9.99) - see


Disclosure: I was contacted by the author several weeks ago and offered a free download of the book in return for a review,  and read it in three days.  I've re-read it twice since.  I was not compensated for this review, and the opinions are all mine.  Thank you, Michael!

Copyright (c) 2021, Randall J. Seaver

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1 comment:

Diane Gould Hall said...

Gonna add this to my "to read" Kindle list. Thanks Randy.