August 28, 2020
Last week I wrote about a few books based on surprising DNA results. This week I thought I’d mention a few more books that deal with family history. They’re stories of an individual who learned of a family secret and how that changed their lives. While not strictly genealogical, these books rely on a lot of genealogical research techniques to unravel their secrets. They can help inspire us to follow some of the same paths the authors did in our own family history or perhaps convince us that the methods the authors used could have been improved by better genealogical research. Either way, I find them to be a good break from my own, often-stalled, research.
One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life by Bliss Broyard and When I was White by Sarah Valentine both deal with racial identity which was hidden by the authors’ families. One Drop is the story of author Bliss Broyard’s father Anatole Broyard, a well-known book critic for The New York Times. At the time of his death, his family learned that he had spent his adult life “passing” as white in spite of being a Louisiana Creole of mixed race. The majority of the book traces the author’s search for her father’s family and ancestry. For genealogists, the story, in addition to being a meaningful glimpse into a man’s decisions regarding how he wanted to be regarded in his life, also details the research strategies that the author used to find out about her father’s history. In particular the sections dealing with free people of color from New Orleans is a look into a piece of history that many have never even heard of.
When I was White is another story of a young woman who learns in adulthood that her beliefs about who she thought she was are incorrect. Sarah Valentine learns at the age of twenty-seven that the man who raised her was not her biological father; instead her father was a black man who may, or may not, have raped her mother. This shocking secret kept by her parents upends the author’s life, and the book follows her turmoil as she comes to terms with this change in who she thought she was. As she searches for the truth, she delves into how race permeates many aspects of her life.
Paper Love: Searching for the Girl my Grandfather Left Behind by Sarah Wildman is the story of her search to find out what happened to her grandfather’s first love, a girl he left behind in pre WWII Europe. Her grandfather and grandmother, who he met long after he left Europe, were long dead when she discovered a cache of letters from his former lover and started out on a journey to discover what had happened to the girl. Her research spanned years and uncovered a fascinating look at pre WWII Jewish society in Austria. This is another book that genealogists will find interesting, even if they have no connection with Jewish society in pre WWII Europe. The unfolding of the mystery of what happened between the author’s grandfather and his lover is an engrossing story.
Since genealogists by their very nature are curious about other people’s lives, memoirs are a good way to delve into other lives even when we don’t feel like going serious genealogy on our own family lines. These three books are interesting in their own right but are especially interesting for those of us research our own family histories because they show us how someone else broke down walls hiding family secrets.
Researcher/Director at Large