Telling Her Story 1

I LOVE books, anyone who knows me can tell you that. Typically, when I talk about books I’m recommending books for teaching family history research and learning  new resources. I’m always interested in how other genealogists/writers describe the methodology of doing family history research and feel it’s important that others use these books to enhance their knowledge.

However, one of the ways books can inspire your genealogy is demonstrating how to tell a story . The following three books are some of my favorite for conveying the real life story of women. They each do so in a unique way. They serve as good examples that as we tell the story of our ancestors we don’t have to do it in the same way that genealogies have traditionally been written. By incorporating various elements such as history we can make our family history more interesting to the non-family historians in the family, including the next generation.


Annie’s Ghosts by Steve Luxenberg.

[amazon_link id="B002KHMZEU" target="_blank" container="" container_class="" ]Annie's Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret[/amazon_link]

One of my all-time favorites is written by an editor for the Washington Post. He uses his reporting skills to seek out the truth about an aunt that he and his siblings never knew existed. His mother had successfully hid the secret of her sister all their lives. It’s only after her death that the aunt’s existence is revealed. This story is a must read for all genealogists. Luxenberg tackles a difficult research problem, finding records for a person who lived a majority of her life in an institution, successfully. An additional story involves  a cousin who helps fill in the missing pieces for him and her amazing story of survival during the Holocaust. If you ever have the chance to hear Steve speak, I highly recommend it.

Bold Spirit: Helga Estby’s Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America by Linda Lawrence Hunt.

[amazon_link id="1400079934" target="_blank" container="" container_class="" ]Bold Spirit: Helga Estby's Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America[/amazon_link]

The author, Linda Lawrence Hunt, was introduced to the story of Helga Estby through a school child’s history essay about his ancestor. This is an incredible story of courage, adventure, shame and what happened to women who strayed out of their “proper” roles in  19th century America. Helga and her daughter accept an offer from an unknown sponsor to walk across America with promises of a much-needed cash reward. Part marketing ploy, these women set off only to find that things weren’t as promised. This choice, one that she believes will benefit her family,  affects Helga’s life forever. The author used present-day interviews and newspapers to recreate Helga’s adventure. This work is a good combination of history and personal narrative. It’s a good reminder that our everyday ancestors did extraordinary things.

Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls

[amazon_link id="1416586296" target="_blank" container="" container_class="" ]Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel[/amazon_link]

Anyone whose read Jeannette Walls’ first book The Glass Castle may have left with the feeling of “what’s wrong with her parents?” The author’s follow-up book starts to answer that question. Half Broke Horses explores her maternal grandmother but does so in a historical novel approach. Walls’ takes her mother’s stories of her grandmother and some family histories she read and weaves it into a fascinating narrative that follows a young ranch girl who does everything from save her siblings during a flash flood to riding her horse alone over 500 miles to accept first teaching job as a teenager. This is a great example of what can be done writing an ancestor’s life when all you have is oral tradition or very few sources.

It’s not enough to research your female ancestors. Their stories deserve to be told. Take some time away from your research to write-up your ancestor’s story.

Gena Philibert-Ortega

About Gena Philibert-Ortega

Gena Philibert-Ortega holds Master’s degrees in Interdisciplinary Studies and Religion. She is the author of hundreds of articles published in genealogy newsletters and magazines. Her writings can be found on her blogs, Gena’s Genealogy and Food.Family.Ephemera . Her latest book is From the Family Kitchen (F + W Media, 2012). Gena is the author of IDG’s monthly column, Remember the Ladies.

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