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New book by spiritual travel writer Lori Erickson explores the religious aspects of genealogy research

Westminster John Knox Press publishes ‘The Soul of the Family Tree: Ancestors, Stories, and the Spirits We Inherit’

by Westminster John Knox Press | Special to Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE — Genealogy research can help us discover our ancestors, but it can also deepen our spiritual lives, argues Lori Erickson in her new book, “The Soul of the Family Tree: Ancestors, Stories, and the Spirits We Inherit” (WJK Books).

Erickson, known for her unique blend of travel writing, spiritual exploration, and memoir, was drawn to genealogy, as many of us are, with a simple at-home DNA test that she sent off in the mail. She had grown up in a passionately Norwegian-American Iowa town but had never engaged with that part of her town or her family’s history. However, when her results came back as firmly Norwegian, Erickson set out on a journey to learn more about her Viking, Norwegian, and hard-scrabble immigrant forebearers.

“My research on my family tree has made me realize that rather than a mere list of names and dates, genealogy can be an invitation to imagine, to ponder, and to learn not just who our ancestors were but who we are and who we might become,” Erickson writes in the early pages of the book.

A self-described “spiritual mutt” whose faith traditions have shifted over the course of her life, Erickson’s writings until now had focused primarily on the intersection of travel and spirituality. However, with these DNA test results and her emerging family tree, she wanted to dig deeper. What could she learn from the spirituality of her forebearers?

She began to seek what she calls her “spiritual DNA.” Her story reflected something larger than just filling out her family tree. She saw “a shift from a pagan world to a Christian one and then to a secular culture that nonetheless longs for transcendence.” And in this exploration, she dove into the history of the Vikings, the stories of her Norwegian immigrant ancestors, modern-day Norse and pagan celebrations in North America, the trickiness of genealogy research, and more. Chapters in the book include topics such as:

  • The Web of Wyrd: the energetic matrix that connects everything in the past and present, as well as future potential events.
  • Gudrid the Far Traveler: likely the most well-traveled woman of the Middle Ages, sister-in-law of the famous explorer Leif Eriksson, and mother to the first child of European descent born in the New World.
  • Hans and Sila: Erickson’s poor immigrant forebearers who packed up their entire lives in Laerdal, Norway, and emigrated to the Midwest in 1850, never to see the land of their birth again.
  • Olaf: The “Viking Saint” king who converted to Christianity and whose death in battle catalyzed Norway’s conversion from a pagan to a Christian nation.

Deeply curious, heartfelt, and witty, Erickson’s explorations “posit that spiritual grounding in one’s family history can combat ‘historical amnesia’ and nurture a sense of belonging,” says Foreword Reviews. Readers interested in Viking and Norse history, Norway, spirituality, and genealogy will find this an engaging and thoughtful journey that is sure to inspire. “Readers may find themselves ordering their own DNA testing kit upon finishing this,” says Publishers Weekly.

“In the end,” Erickson asks her reader, “which is more important: our physical characteristics or our inner lives?” Explore how the spirits of your ancestors can guide you today in “The Soul of the Family Tree.”

About the author

Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She is the author of “Near the Exit: Travels with the Not-So-Grim Reaper” (which won a Silver INDIES Award for 2019 Religion Book of the Year from Foreword Reviews) and “Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God.” Her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, National Geographic Traveler, and Better Homes and Gardens, among others. She lives in Iowa City, Iowa, with her husband.

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