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Kimberly Powell

Pleasure Reading for Genealogists

By May 18, 2010

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During the past few weeks while I've been recuperating from surgery, I have pleasantly had time to read several books that I think may interest my genealogy friends. All three are very different in the stories that they tell, but each also follow the same basic premise - a researcher in the present-day trying to solve a family mystery from the past. One of the books, The Forgotten Garden, was a gift from my husband, while the other two -- Annie's Ghosts and The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane were sent to me for review by the publisher, Hyperion.

  1. The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe tells the story of one woman's journey back into one of the most fascinating and disturbing periods in American history - the Salem witch trials. The book begins with Harvard graduate student Connie Goodwin discovering an ancient key within a seventeenth-century Bible in her grandmother's abandoned home near Salem. The key contains a rolled fragment of parchment with the mysterious name, Deliverance Dane. This discovery launches Connie on a quest to learn who Deliverance Dane was, and to unearth her "physick book," a book which may shed new light on the theory of witchcraft in colonial America. Connie does quite a bit of sleuthing in churches, historical archives and other New England respositories to solve her mystery, and outside of a few spots where as a reader (genealogist) I couldn't understand how she couldn't see what was right in front of her, her quest is both fascinating and charming. The "bad guy" was also very obvious from the beginning, but The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane was still a thrilling page-turner for me. Author Katherine Howe, herself a descendant of two Salem "witches" (Elizabeth Proctor who survived the Salem witch trials, and Elizabeth Howe, who did not), offers up a great blend of history, magic and reality. The best parts, for me, were the flashbacks to the life of Deliverance Dane and her offspring, and the author's attention to historical detail - a unique window into the life of Puritan women in 1600s Salem, Massachusetts. The New York Times best-selling novel was first published in 2009 by VOICE, an imprint of Hyperion.

  2. The second book sent to me by Hyperion was Annie's Ghosts, one of the Washington Post Book World's Best Books of 2009 and a Michigan Notable Book for 2010. What's interesting about this book is that it is part memoir and part investigative journalism - something I might not normally pick up at the bookstore, but after reading this one I plan to look for other memoirs for my summer reading list!  Annie's Ghosts follows the author as he discovers that his mother had a secret sister that she never revealed to her family, and sets off along the trail to the truth after his mother's death. This book does an absolutely outstanding  job of showing just how a wide variety of sources can be used to not only piece together the dates and facts of an individual's life, but also tell their personal story. Author Steve Luxenburg, a senior editor with the Washington Post, obviously did his homework, tracking down records from a variety of mental institutions, interviewing dozens of experts, locating numerous individuals from his mother's past, learning how to navigate changed Jewish/Eastern European names to find his family's immigration records, and even ordering a copy of his family's 1940 census enumeration (information not yet released to the public, but available via paid request by family members). While telling the story of his aunt, Annie, the author also presents fascinating insight into historical treatment of the mentally ill, an area in which I had essentially no background knowledge. Even if you've never read a memoir, I think you'll find Annie's Ghost a moving saga into the world of a woman who had essentially been erased from her  own family history. First published in 2009 by Hyperion.

  3. Like the first book, The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton is another book which uses flashback to alternate between past history and a present-day researcher following the clues to her family's secret past. The riveting novel begins with a small girl abandoned on a ship departing England for Australia in 1913. She arrives alone with only a small suitcase and a book of fairy tales, and after noone comes to claim her, is taken in and raised by the dockmaster and his wife as their own. On her twenty-first birthday, her father tells Nell the truth about her family, which leaves her reeling and ultimately sends her on a quest to trace her real identity. She makes it as far as Blackhurst Manor on the Cornish coast and the Montrachet family, but is never able to finish her quest. Following Nell's death, the mystery is once again uncovered by her granddaughter, Cassandra, who takes up the quest and ultimately is able to piece together her family's tragic history. As in the other books, a variety of genealogical and historical records were consulted by Cassandra, but this haunting tale focuses primarily on family sources - photos, scrapbooks, paintings, interviews with family friends, etc. This is definitely a hard book to put down! Reprinted in 2010 by Washington Square Press.
May 18, 2010 at 12:11 pm
(1) Sandra Richardson says:

I, too, am reading The Forgotten Garden..and it is really a good book. I found it recommended on a blog while I was surfing around on the net and I am enjoying it very much. One of those books that is hard to put down. I will try to find the other 2 books that you mentioned and hope they are as good. Thanks.

May 18, 2010 at 2:42 pm
(2) Allison says:

If I might add one more book to your recouperation reading I would suggest Lawrence Hill’s novel, “The Book of Negroes”. It is a Canadian #1 bestseller. It follows the life of an 11 year old West African girl named Aminata, abducted from her village and put on a slave ship to an indigo plantation in South Carolina. Her life journey takes her to New York where she becomes one of 3,000 Black Loyalists who leaves for Nova Scotia. Those Loyalists as you likely know, were recorded in a register called “The Book of Negroes” by the British Military. Lawrence Hill has taken liberties with some facts his novel in order to progress the fictional story. The truth remains that there is indeed a register of the colonists and is a good reference place for African Canadians and Americans wanting to discover their genealogy.

May 18, 2010 at 11:26 pm
(3) Wanda says:

Thanks for sharing these reviews. Hope you’re taking good care of yourself as you recover.

May 19, 2010 at 7:50 am
(4) Marilou Jacob says:

Thanks, Kimberly for the book reviews. I am looking forward to reading them. I hope you are recovering well and will be good as new soon

May 25, 2010 at 2:26 pm
(5) Kathleen says:

I’ve been looking for a couple of good books for summertime reading, so thanks for sharing these! I hope you are feeling better and better every day. I learn so much from you and always look forward to getting your emails, but concentrate on yourself right now!

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