One of the great enjoyments of genealogy is untangling the branches of your family tree and finding a previously unknown relative.
This usually involves spending hours doing endless Ancestry.com searches and/or sifting through piles of documents and records. In this scenario, the genealogist is a detective. They are looking for clues, analyzing facts, deciding where to look next, making some educated guesses and, in the best cases, organizing these pieces of information in such a way that sheds light on their family history. For these reasons, I surmise that genealogists should appreciate a good mystery, specifically mysteries that focus on uncovering secrets relating to family lineage. Ranging from historical fiction to contemporary novels of family life, all of the titles below have family history mystery as a major theme.
June by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore follows twenty-five-year-old Cassie, who has just returned to small-town St. Jude, Ohio following the death of her grandmother. Holed up alone in the dilapidated mansion she just inherited, Cassie is surprised one day to find a handsome stranger at her doorstep claiming that she has also inherited the fortune of the late legendary actor Jack Montgomery. Montgomery’s recognized daughter, a movie star in her own right, isn’t buying it and comes knocking. She wants Cassie to take a paternity test. Cassie, instead, decides to see what she can dig up about her grandmother’s possible illicit affair with Jack. Told through alternating time periods, June is a light, romantic read that blends contemporary family mystery with old school Hollywood glamour.
The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman follows Tooly Zylberberg, owner of a bookshop in the Welsh countryside, who spends most of her life reading. Yet there’s one tale that never made sense: her own life. In childhood, she was spirited away from home and raised by various people in various locales across the world. But who were these people who brought her up? Whatever happened to them? And who are her real parents?
Unbecoming, a Young Adult novel by British writer Jenny Downham, tells the story of a teenager whose estranged grandmother, suffering from Alzheimer’s, comes to live with her family. Katie knows nothing about her grandmother. Incidentally, neither does Grandma Mary. Together, they slowly unravel the family history that kept them apart for so long.
The Imposter Bride by Nancy Richler is the story of a young, enigmatic woman who arrives in post-war Montreal and is clearly not who she claims to be. Her attempt to live out her life as Lily Azerov shatters as she disappears one day, leaving a new husband and baby daughter, and a host of unanswered questions. Who is she really and what happened to the young woman whose identity she has stolen? Why did she leave her family and where did she go? It is left to the daughter she abandoned to find the answers to these questions as she searches for the mother she may never truly know.
It’s not fiction, but an honourable mention must go to Not by Father’s Son by Scottish actor Alan Cumming. This memoir is focused dually on two intertwining stories – Cumming’s fraught relationship with his father and his experience with "Who Do You Think You Are?" a BBC show focused on the ancestry of celebrities and uncovering family secrets.
Another non-fiction honourable mention goes to Between Gods by Alison Pick, a memoir that follows the author’s journey through her family history. As a teenager, Alison made a discovery that her Pick grandparents, who had escaped from the Czech Republic during WWII, were Jewish--and that most of this side of the family had died in concentration camps. This knowledge compels her, as an adult, to consider Judaism.
All titles mentioned in this article are available to reserve in various formats from the County of Lennox & Addington Libraries.
For assistance in your personal genealogy research, visit your local library branch to use Ancestry.com Library Edition for free.