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WV Book Team: Family histories make epic reads

By By Elizabeth Fraser and Dana Smook
WV Book Team

Family is likely the biggest influence on any person’s life. And many families have complicated histories full of interesting characters. It’s no surprise authors frequently center their stories on a family.

Pulling deep from a family history adds depth and complexity, giving readers a perspective they never otherwise could reach. Books that focus on a family’s past are often complex and sweeping, adding tastes of historical fiction and good doses of drama, perfect for those readers looking for a fully immersive experience.

Tracy Chevalier writes about an American pioneer family in her intergenerational novel, “At the Edge of the Orchard.” The Goodenough clan leaves their extended family and a civilized existence in Connecticut to establish their own homestead in Black Swamp, Ohio.

James Goodenough makes the trek with his wife, their children and his beloved Golden Pippin apples, which his family brought to America from England and have grown for generations. The novel shifts perspectives from James to his contentious, drunken wife, Sadie, and then to their son, Robert, who flees Black Swamp and heads west.

Set against a backdrop of family dysfunction, pioneer hardships and American legends — including visits from Johnny Appleseed — the story of the Goodenoughs comes satisfyingly full circle in the end.

Chevalier’s atmospheric language conjures up the sticky feeling of swamp mud and the sweet smell of apples to transport readers to the Goodenough farm. With rich character voices and a strong sense for the grandeur of the American landscape, Chevalier has written a compelling historical novel that explores the meaning of family.

Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel, “Homegoing,” made a major splash when it was published last year. Listed as one of Oprah’s favorite books of 2016, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and winner of the 2017 PEN Hemingway award, Gyasi’s far-reaching family saga was well received by critics and readers alike.

“Homegoing” follows seven generations of an African family exploited by slave trafficking. During the mid-18th century in modern-day Ghana, two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, face very different destinies. Effia marries a British official working in the slave trade and remains in Africa.

Esi is captured by village raiders and sold into slavery. She is eventually brought to America. The successive chapters follow their sprawling families, with each chapter dedicated to a different descendant, starting in a new place and time. “Homegoing” is a stunning family epic with astounding scope. Gyasi’s writing is both evocative and elegant. This is a novel readers won’t soon forget.

In her memoir, “Among the Living and the Dead,” Inara Verzemnieks recounts how her Latvian family was separated by World War II and its aftermath. Verzemnieks’ strong bond with the grandmother who raised her is the driving force behind this family history.

Grandmother Livija and her two children fled to the countryside during the war after her husband was conscripted into the German Army. Then they struggled to escape the brutal retributions of the Soviet army.

Eventually, the family settled in Tacoma, Washington, as refugees. After the death of her grandmother and the opening of borders, Verzemnieks travels to Latvia to reconnect with her great-aunt and remaining family. She relates what happened to those left behind, completing her family history and unfolding a mystery surrounded by war and survival.

Lyrical and melancholy, “Among the Living and the Dead” is a powerful tale of loss and fortitude with meaningful connections to today’s world events.

With “Before We Were Yours,” Christy Award-winning author Lisa Wingate weaves a novel around the true history of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society scandal. From the 1920s through 1950, Georgia Tann, the cruel director of a Memphis orphanage, preyed on those longing for a child by stealing children and placing them up for adoption.

On a stormy night in 1939, 12-year-old Rill Foss is in charge of her siblings when her parents leave home for an emergency. When strangers arrive at their houseboat on the Mississippi River, the children are swept into a dark and frightening situation.

In present-day South Carolina, Avery Stafford has come home to her powerful politician father when he faces a health crisis. A visit to her Grandmother Judy’s nursing home leads to a chance encounter that shakes Avery’s view of her privileged world and the lies that underpin it.

After facing her family’s secret history, can Avery continue to live the life planned for her, or does she need to build her own? With a storyline that grabs readers from the beginning and characters that feel real, Wingate offers a riveting tale of family lost and found.

Brian Panowich introduces readers to generations of outlaws in his debut novel, “Bull Mountain.” From their home in Georgia’s mountains, the Burroughs clan has been living on illegal income for decades, untouched by law enforcement. In the early days, it was moonshine, then pot and now methamphetamine.

Clayton Burroughs doesn’t want a position in the criminal family business and moves to the next town over to become a sheriff. He avoids interference with his family’s empire on Bull Mountain until a federal agent shows up to test his loyalties, staging brother against brother.

The narration deftly shifts between generations to create chapters that are fast-moving. The setting provides a vivid, deeply rooted sense of place. “Bull Mountain” is written in graceful, understated prose to create a gritty, violent hillbilly noir thriller about protecting family honor.

Books that tackle complicated family histories make for some of the most in-depth reads. These generational stories remind readers of the complexity of their own families and highlight the forces of chance that come together to make a person who he or she is. Looking in depth at one branch of a family tree provides such a personal, profound viewpoint.

Want more recommendations for generational family histories? Looking for something else to read? Just get in touch with your friendly local librarian! We are always happy to help.

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