Did your ancestors live in a very different place or time? An evocative memoir can give you a feel for what it was like to nurse a glass of sweet tea on a languid afternoon, play in a rustling cornfield, or travel on a train (or wagon!) for hours to visit relatives.
Memoirs chronicle everything from the social upheavals to day-to-day life the country has witnessed in its two hundred-plus year history. Here are just a few memoirs that provide a strong sense of place — and a strong sense of history:
From the South:
· Former slave Frederick Douglass’s 1845 memoir and treatise on abolition is Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.
· Biography of a Place is Harry Crews’s story of growing up the son of a Georgia sharecropper during the Depression.
· Several of Pat Conroy’s books tell of a Southern life, including Death of Santini, The Water Is Wide (about his year teaching on a poverty-stricken South Carolina island), and My Reading Life.
· Rick Bragg’s All Over but the Shoutin’ is about a hardscrabble Southern boyhood in Alabama.
· Frances Mayes’s Under Magnolia, a Southern Memoir is about isolated life in south Georgia on the cusp of the Civil Rights movement.
Appalachia has its own collection:
· Horace Kephart wrote Our Southern Highlanders: A Narrative of Adventure in the Southern Appalachians and a Study of Life Among the Mountaineers, which focuses on the Smoky Mountains area of a century ago.
· Loretta Lynn: Coal Miner’s Daughter tells a story that starts in poverty in Kentucky and ends up on a world stage.
· In Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, the author describes her explorations and the area near her home in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.
· Stephanie Kadel Taras’s Mountain Girls describes growing up in the remote hollows of West Virginia, both during her recent childhood and for the generation of woman that came before her.
New York and New England:
· Charlotte Haven writes about growing up in 19th-century Yankee society in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in her short Memoir of a Clever New England Girl.
· The Old Leather Man: Historical Accounts of a Connecticut and New York Legend, by Dan W. DeLuca, tells the true story of a wanderer who, over a period of six years in the 1880s, continuously walked a 365-mile loop between the Connecticut and Hudson Rivers, sleeping in caves and accepting food from townspeople along the way; it includes old newspaper accounts, maps, and other windows into small-town rural New York and Connecticut of the time.
· Alfred Kazin’s A Walker in the City describes a 20th-century childhood in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, New York.
Towns across America:
· Diane Johnson wrote Flyover Lives: A Memoir about her small river town of Moline, Illinois.
· In Growing Up Jewish in Small Town America: A Memoir, Elaine Fantle Shimberg writes about growing up Jewish in the not-so-Jewish town of Fort Dodge, Iowa, in the 1940s and ’50s.
· Phyllis Barber’s How I Got Cultured: A Nevada Memoir gives one writer’s insights into a Mormon childhood in Nevada in the 1940s and ’50s.
· Haven Kimmel’s A Girl Named Zippy describes the author’s childhood in the 1960s in a small Indiana town of 300 people.
· Annie Proulx wrote Bird Cloud: A Memoir of Place about 640 acres of Wyoming wetlands, prairies, and cliffs along the North Platte River.
Life in Alaska and Hawai‘i:
· Isabella Bird’s Six Months in the Sandwich Islands is vivid, wonderful writing with extensive first-person views of Victorian-era Hawaii.
· Garrett Hongo’s Volcano: A Memoir of Hawaii evokes both a Japanese-American family background and a sense of place.
· Heather Lende’s Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs gives a glimpse of modern-day small town Alaska.
Once you’ve got a feel for how your family might have lived, explore Ancestry’s state pages for some of the details. Click on the map and you’ll find extensive, clickable lists of records pertaining to each U.S. state.