Thursday, December 30, 2010

Favorite Narrative Family History Books

During the holidays and particularly on my long flight to and from Hawaii, I was able to do a little bit of reading. (Imagine that.) It was quite a production even for me to select which books I wanted to bring on the plane with me – I had such a long list of things I wanted to read. I ended up bringing a ridiculous amount of books (I think I had 5 books), of which I only read part of one. In ordering my books, I began reflecting on some of the best “family history” books I have read. I thought I would share some of these.

First, my criteria: I did not choose any “instructive” how-to books. These books had to be narratives. They had to be nonfiction and cover several generations of a family’s story. Some of them are old, and some are new - and on my desk right now. (Of course, my book would go at the top of this list, but these are ideas for after you’ve FINISHED reading my book!)

1. Family by Ian Frazier. This is one of the books that truly shaped my course in life. I read it as a college student and instantly knew that I wanted to write a book like that someday. This book describes Frazier’s “ordinary” family through several generations of American history. Frazier is the master of understatement. I have tried to model this in my own writing – describing actions that show emotions instead of always stating emotions directly. For example, he describes losing his brother when he was young. He tells about his parents getting back in the car after his brother’s death, describes their slow, methodical actions. Then states simply “It was the worst day of my life.” That’s all he needs to say. It’s so powerful! One of my favorite quotes, one that I use in my book lecture, comes from this book. Frazier says (I am paraphrasing): While we are required to love all of our descendents equally, the same doesn’t apply to our ancestors. We are allowed to have favorite ancestors because they aren’t around to know about it.

2. The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home by George Howe Colt. He uses the history of his family’s vacation home to describe his family and the changes that have come over them – and their environment - during the past one hundred years. (The house is on the Cape which endears it to me even more.)

3. Red House: Being a Mostly Accurate Account of New England’s Oldest Continuously Lived-In House. Here’s another New England house book. Messer parallels the life of the family that owned this house for generations with her own family who buys the house.

4. Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang. This is possibly my favorite book of all time. Everyone, everyone, should read it. Chang traces her Chinese family through three generations, weaving in the incredible events of Chinese history that shaped them – and those around them.

5. The Sacred Willow: Four Generations in the Life of a Vietnamese Family by Duong Van Mai Elliott. Fascinating! Elliott’s book starts in the past in rural Vietnman and finishes with Elliott’s life as her family escapes from Saigon and she eventually marries an American man.

6. Mosaic: A Chronicle of Five Generations by Diane Armstrong. This tells the story of a Jewish family beginning in 1890 and stretching to present day, including stories of her family during the Nazi regime.

7. In My Blood: Six Generations of Madness and Desire in an American Family by John Sedgwick. This is the book I read on the plane to Hawaii. I’m about two-thirds finished with it. The thread that extends through time as he traces the generations of his family is mental illness. I’m enjoying the book.

8. Shaking the Family Tree by Buzzy Jackson. I ordered this in from the library, but haven’t started it yet.

Of course, this is only a few of many possibilities. I would love to hear other people's favorite books in this category.


  1. Thanks for the list. I'm interested in reading more books of this type and you magically provided the list!

  2. Me, too! I hope you enjoy Buzzy's book as much as I have.

  3. I also loved Buzzy's, and have to say that yours, Leslie, is on the top of my list for this genre!

    Other favorites: Roots by Alex Haley--the classic, I read it for the first time over Thanksgiving and it was very moving and powerful, although he wove fact with fiction without any documentation...

    Half Broke Horses by Jeanette Walls--I'm in the middle of this right now, but I envy how well she imagined her grandmother's life.

    I also like fictional books which weave in family generations such as The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton and Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay.

    Can't wait to read some of those others! Keep up the recommendations.

  4. I just reserved Family and think it should be here in a few days. I've been looking for a good read. Plus, he's from Ohio, I'm from Ohio.... Thanks for the recommendations, both yours and your commenters'.