4 Historic Novels
9/27/2009
Learn how to add character to your family history by taking a lesson from these genealogical narratives.

1. An American Family: The Kennans, The First Three Generations by George F. Kennan (W.W. Norton & Co., $22.95). Kennan is the author of 20 books and has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Now in his late 90s, he captures his family history in print. He begins his narrative with the Kennan family's life of poverty in late 17th- and early 18th-century Scotland. An American Family details the Kennans' passage to America and the hardships they faced as early settlers in Connecticut and Massachusetts. Woven into the multigeneration family memoir are major events in America's history. At just 136 pages, this book can be read easily in a sitting or two. As in many commercially published family histories, you won't find traditional genealogical documentation, but Kennan reveals his sources as part of the discussion within the text. Unfortunately, the book lacks an index—an element every family history should include.

2. Five Sisters: The Langhornes of Virginia by James Fox (Touchstone Books, $16). Fox tells the story of a family of extraordinary women—five sisters who lived at the highest levels of society and politics in America and England, leaving in their wakes rich husbands and international fame, tragedy and scandal. At the center of the narrative is Nancy Langhorne, who was the wife of Waldorf Astor and the first woman to take a seat in the British Parliament. Another sister, Irene, married Charles Dana Gibson and became the incarnation of the Gibson Girl. Fox, a grandson of one of the sisters, draws on journals and correspondence to create a family saga that stretches from the aftermath of the Civil War to the 1960s. His engaging narrative provides not only an account of the sisters' lives, but also a picture of the tempestuous era in which they lived. Because this book relies so heavily upon correspondence and oral history interviews, genealogical purists won't find the traditional method of citing sources.

3. Rare Birds: An American Family by Dan Bessie (University Press of Kentucky, $25). Bessie hails from an extraordinarily gifted and creative family. Through inherited journals and letters, he uncovers the history of the Bessie and Burnett families, beginning with his great-grandfather, a stowaway bound for America. Other relatives include a blacklisted member of the Hollywood 10 (a group of screenwriters, producers and directors who refused to address Congress' questions about their believed Communist affiliations), the brains behind Tony the Tiger and the Marlboro Man, a trio of gay puppeteers and a convicted murderer. In uncovering their histories, Bessie shows how these "rare birds" tell an American story. Unfortunately, the only source details are cryptic references within the text: "I got around to the 1880 New York Census." This implies a state census, when Bessie is more than likely referring to the federal census for the state of New York. Bessie tells a great story in his memoir, but serious researchers—whether family members, genealogists or historians—expecting to use his work as a springboard for further study will be disappointed by the lack of documentation and an index.

4. The Sweet Hell Inside: A Family History by Edward Ball (William Morrow, $27). A passionate romance by written correspondence, a family feud that results in dueling businesses, a classical musician who introduces Negro spirituals to the London elite, a mistress who performs illegal abortions for women of all races in the kitchen of her cottageE The Sweet Hell Inside, by National Book Award winner Edward Ball, revolves around real-life characters who are more vivid than those in any novel. While Ball traces the South Carolina mixed-race Harleston family, the events of the late 19th and early 20th centuries—from Reconstruction to World War I—provide a historical backdrop. A highly readable family history, the book's only flaw is the way Ball cites his sources. Just as in his first book, Slaves in the Family, citations are grouped at the back of the book by chapter and text page. The text has no foot- or endnote numbers to guide the reader: Each time you're curious whether a passage or paragraph has a corresponding reference, you have to flip to the back of the book. This method is incredibly frustrating and cumbersome to readers who want to learn where Ball gathered his facts.