Rooted in Fiction

Rooted in Fiction

Four books that take a novel approach to family history.


  • The Ghost of Hannah Mendes by Naomi Ragen (St. Martin’s Griffin, $14.95). What could be better than a good old-fashioned ghost story, sprinkled with romance and tied together with a search for one’s ancestor? Catherine da Costa, a wealthy Manhattan widow, doesn’t have long to live when she’s visited by the ghost of her ancestor, Hannah Mendes. Hannah, a 16th-century Sephardic Jewish businesswoman, had written a memoir, but over the centuries, pieces of it became scattered across Europe in archives and personal collections. Hannah’s ghost visits Catherine, encouraging her to find all the missing memoir pieces. Unable to travel across Europe herself, Catherine coerces her two granddaughters into making the journey. Along the way, they find not only the memoir, but also love and romance, of course. Genealogists will love the thrill of the hunt for the historical memoir, but will shake their heads in disbelief when they see where some of the pages ended up. How on earth will the granddaughters find pages “in a suitcase in the attic of a house in Grindlewald, Switzerland”? Ragen weaves all Hannah’s memoir pages into the story, so readers also learn about a fascinating Sephardic Jewish woman’s life during the Renaissance.
  • Portrait in Sepia by Isabel Allende (HarperCollins, $26). Portrait in Sepia picks up where Allende’s Daughter of Fortune left off, but you don’t need to read that book to appreciate this one. This fictional family saga covers four generations of a multiethnic family (English, Chinese, Chilean) in San Francisco and Chile from 1862 to 1910. The family’s story unfolds through the eyes of Aurora del Valle, who narrates as though she’s writing a memoir. Since age 5, Aurora has suffered the same nightmare, triggered by a traumatic event she doesn’t remember. The need to stop that nightmare drives her to uncover her family history. The story is engrossing and the family secrets aren’t outrageous—they could be part of anyone’s family history. Still, casual readers may find it difficult to get beyond Allende’s long narrative paragraphs, each one sometimes spanning two and a half pages. Be prepared for a tear-jerking ending.
  • The Songcatcher by Sharyn McCrumb (Signet, $7.99). The Songcatcher revolves around McCrumb’s fourth great-grandfather, Malcolm McCourry, who as a child was kidnapped near his home in Scotland and brought to America. The common thread connecting him to the other main character, the fictional present-day folk singer Lark McCourry, is a song passed down in the family—one Malcolm learned from a shipmate. Genealogists will devour the chapters on Malcolm and his life, and will be able to mentally identify the types of records McCrumb surely examined to get the facts of his apprenticeship, marriage, migration and military service. The real-life characters of the past are more enjoyable than the fictional present-day ones, but readers will appreciate McCrumb’s talent for bridging the past and the present.
  • Commonwealth Avenue by Linda Nevins (St. Martin’s Press, $15.95). This novel depicting the life and career of Hollywood production designer Zoe Hillyard gets off to a slow start. Once Zoe returns to her great-grandmother Augusta Hillyard’s house in Boston and discovers her diaries, however, the story picks up. Like The Ghost of Hannah Mendes and The Songcatcher, the stories of past and present are presented in alternating chapters until the two story lines merge at the end of the book. And like those two novels, Commonwealth Avenue shows how ancestors’ lives can have a powerful impact on their descendants. When Zoe returns to the house on “Comm Ave,” she feels only a moderate connection to it and her ancestors. But after reading Augusta’s diaries—getting to know her and how she fought to keep the house in the family—it becomes Zoe’s driving force, too. Genealogists will be envious of Zoe’s fictional find, wishing we all had a great-grandmother who left such a detailed cache of journals. I won’t give away the last entry in Augusta’s diary at the end of the book, but it will make you gasp.

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