Two Great Reads That Draw on Family Stories

Does your family’s history have the drama needed for a wide readership?

The answer lies not in content but in your ability to find its story threads, the glowing strands that have relevance and insights for others. That’s a tall order—often requiring multiple rewrites to get distance and objectivity, overcome familial objections, and to filter genealogical minutia. But there are a growing number of writers who are doing just that to gain an international following.

Gwen Roland of Postmark Bayou Chene

Here’s two widely different examples: the novel Postmark Bayou Chene by Gwen Roland, and The Juggler’s Children, creative nonfiction by Carolyn Abraham.

Postmark Bayou Chene

This is a first novel for Roland, a prolific nonfiction writer who offers authentic historical details that evoke life a century ago in the watery world of her ancestral homeland in the Louisiana bayou. Roland draws loosely on her family’s past, in a narrative sparked by a Civil War-era letter that arrives fifty years late. The secret it reveals brings unlooked for change into the lives of a hamlet in the Bayou Chene.

Place is the dangerous, if beautiful, story focus, and its people are fully enmeshed into its rhythms—and each other’s lives. Roland presents a bewilderingly large cast of characters through a shifting point of view that makes for challenging reading. But this intriguing setting and her protagonist, a blind girl trapped by her handicap, love of family and isolation, have magnetic pull.

And maybe that ending tidied everything up into too neat a package, but it sent me to the tissue box, with a craving to see Roland’s jungle world of alligators and birdsong.

The Juggler’s Children

In The Juggler’s Children, Carolyn Abraham takes her cosmopolitan ancestral mix, dense with family secret, to a DNA test kit in search of answers. As an award-winning journalist who reports on medicine, Abraham adroitly unravels the science of DNA testing within an unfolding story that has suspense and colour. We follow her search to understand her family’s past, firmly stamped on her skin, hair and bones, but otherwise previously known only in hints about a Chinese juggler, a Jamaica slave and Anglo-Indian immigrants. The answers Abraham finds are not what she anticipated.

Carolyn Abraham of The Jugglers Children

This is a dense story, but Abraham—a Canadian writer to follow—selected narrative strands that explore loaded questions we all face about cultural identity.

Have you got examples of a family-based narrative that has captured a wide audience? Send me a note to add to this list.