5 Must-Read Memoirs About Family History

By Vanessa Wieland

Memoirs About Family History

NaNoWriMO is coming up quickly, and it has us thinking about what makes for a good story. While November may be all about writing a novel, the goal of writing 50,000 words in a month is easily applicable if you’ve ever thought about writing about your family history. This is why we’re holding our Genealogist’s Essential Writing Workshop, starting October 30th. Your goal will be to determine who or what you want to write about and develop a plan for tackling it. If you’ve ever thought your ancestor’s life would make a great book, why not write about it? We’ve got the tools to help you get it done.

Must-read memoirs about family history

Fantastic memoirs about family history and culture abound and quite a few of them will spark your desire to put pen to paper. The editors of Family Tree share our top 5 must-read memoirs below. These narratives explore the relationship between generations as well as how their identities are formed by the culture they grew up in. The writers spin their own histories into compelling tales filled with humor and heartbreak, as well as plenty of insight. Every genealogist will be able to relate to their trials and triumphs. Pick up one (or all) of the books to read when you need a break from writing or some inspiration to continue your research.

The Ties that Bind

Memoir by Alan CummingNot My Father’s Son, by Alan Cumming
When Alan Cumming agreed to be on the BBC version of Who Do You Think You Are? he thought it would resolve the mystery surrounding his maternal grandfather. He got more than he bargained for. This memoir combines the very things we family historians deal with on a regular basis: researching family history, breaking through myths and conflicting stories to resolve brick walls, and coming to terms with the good, bad and downright ugly that family brings. Cumming entertains with a storytelling style that is part biting wit, part brutal honesty and a good dose of mystery. It’s a combination that will keep you turning the pages to the end. Plus, genealogists will love seeing what it’s like being featured on the show. – Vanessa Wieland, Online Community Editor

Family, by Ian Frazier
My favorite memoir is kind of a family history and memoir combined. It’s called Family, by Ian Frazier, and it does cover the range of family. He writes about his several-greats-grandparents who settled the Connecticut Western Reserve “Firelands” (now northern Ohio), his Civil War relatives, his parents’ long-distance relationship, his brother’s death from leukemia, and his own writing carer and family research. Three things I enjoy about Family in particular:

  • Being from Ohio, I’m familiar with many of the places Frazier mentions.
  • The book isn’t written chronologically. Frazier manages to move from past to present to further past in a way that makes sense and shows you how past and present are connected.
  • It has lots of detail about people in their everyday lives, which I asked Frazier about years ago when I got to interview him at a genealogy conference. – Diane Haddad, Editor

Triumph Over Adversity

Night, by Elie Wiesel
Although this memoir was very difficult to read, it taught me how strong writing can teach you more about history than a textbook ever can. After reading Night in school, I not only understood the Holocaust from a historical standpoint, but from a personal, human standpoint as well. – Rachel Fountain, Social Media Manager

Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood, by Trevor Noah
Comedian and host of The Daily Show, Trevor Noah brings wit and wisdom to a distinctly unfunny subject: growing up as a mixed-race child in apartheid South Africa. Noah shares stories about his life with his mother in the slums, from eating caterpillars and sleeping on garage floors to bailing out of a moving car. For genealogists, the memoir holds touching recollections about familial love and sacrifice, plus the importance (and consequences) of learning about and identifying with your heritage. – Andrew Koch, Editor/Content Producer

Cultural Critique

I'm a Stranger Here MyselfI’m a Stranger Here Myself, Bill Bryson
I love memoirs, but rarely read any of them more than once. The exception to that rule is Bill Bryson’s I’m a stranger Here Myself, in which Bryson shares his observations upon returning to the US after two decades living in England. Having spent time living in London, I always find Bryson’s tales of reacquainting himself to his home country are relatable and hysterical. If you’ve ever traveled abroad or enjoy cultural observations, I’d highly recommend this fun read! – Ashlee Peck, Online Content Director

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