Thursday, April 28, 2011

Three Novels with Family History Themes

I've recently read and reviewed two novels with family history themes, one for adults and one for children. I read and reviewed another in the latter category about eight months ago. The titles link to my review on my other (book review) blog.

Finding Family by Tonya Bolden is the book most recently published.  Aimed at ages 8-12 (grades 3-6), it's historical fiction, set in the African-American community in Charleston, West Virginia, in 1905.  Twelve-year-old Delana is an orphan trying to learn more about her parents. The story is built around antique photo portraits and postcards in Bolden's collection, and includes a family tree. In her author's note (pages 180-181), the award-winning author said she
had the great thrill of combining my passion for history with my wonderings about long-ago lives: the millions of everyday people from the past who experienced problems with peers, traumas, and dilemmas, and in the end life-lifting revelations like we do today; people who are footnotes in history books -- or not in history books at all.

Thankfully, in museums and historical societies, in libraries and private collections, we have people's diaries, family bibles, handicrafts, letters, and other artifacts - like photographs.  Such treasures not only give us insights into history but also allow our imaginations to take flight.

As for your life, I hope that you will take good care of artifacts from it, along with your family stories.  A century into the future, what you have left behind may very well be prized by a writer working on a book of nonfiction.  Or fiction.

Half Broke Horses is a "true life novel" (its subtitle) by Jeannette Walls about her grandmother, who lived an unconventional life in West Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Chicago in the first half of the 20th century. "I'd been hearing stories about Lily Casey Smith all my life, stories she told over and over to my mother, who told them to me," Walls stated in the author's note (page 271).  She continues (on page 272):
In telling my grandmother's story, I never aspired to that sort of historical accuracy. I saw the book more in the vein of an oral history, retelling of stories handed down by my family through the years, and undertaken with the storyteller's traditional liberties....

Lily Casey Smith was a very real woman, and to say that I created her or the events of her life is giving me more credit than I'm due. However, since I don't have the words from Lily herself, and since I have also drawn on my imagination to fill in details that are hazy or missing...the only honest thing is call the book a novel.
Also written for 8-12 year olds, Search for the Shadowman by Edgar-winner Joan Lowery Nixon is set in 1996 Texas. While working on a genealogy project for his seventh grade history class, Andy becomes determined to solve the mystery of the family's black sheep, and his connection with the (real) Texas Salt Wars of 1877. Andy uses many tools genealogists use (library research, genealogy discussion boards and e-mail, heirlooms, and cemetery visits) to solve the mystery.  Nixon also wrote two series of historical fiction based on the orphan trains of the late nineteenth century.

© Amanda Pape - 2011 - click here to e-mail me.


  1. I *loved* Half Broke Horses and also recommend her other book, The Glass Castle!

  2. Thanks, Missy! I liked The Glass Castle too. I think Half Broke Horses helps one understand Rosemary more in the other book.