Genealogical Books in Disguise, by Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak

Over the last few months, I’ve been on another of my book binges – helplessly buying and reading countless books of a genealogical nature. I reported some of my reactions in Curl Up With a Genealogical Mystery and in Genealogical Cozies. Many of you were kind enough to share your remarks as well, so now I’m at it again.

Genealogical Non-Genealogy Books
Over the years, I’ve written a fair bit about actual genealogy books, mostly of a how-to nature. But this binge is different. I’m on a quest to find books that aren’t overtly genealogical, but that feature stories and themes that resonate with roots-seekers.

The good news is that there are a lot more books of this sort out there than I expected. Perhaps I was blind to them before, but I’m delighted to find so many that appeal in different ways. Recently, I’ve covered several genealogical cozies (lighthearted mysteries, for those who are new to the world of cozies), but for a change of pace, I thought I’d tackle a couple of non-fiction books.

The Big House
Published in 2003, this book by George Howe Colt was a National Book Award finalist, so that was my first clue that I was in for a good read. The complete title is The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home, and that about sums it up.

Have you ever seen those sprawling, old mansions near the shore and wondered about them? What were they like inside? Who lived there? What stories they might have to tell? Well, this book is all about one of them.

Colt grew up going to a family summer home on Cape Cod. Built in 1903, it seemed to him that it had been there forever, but with the passing of generations and increasing upkeep costs, the house was in danger of leaving family hands. So Colt wrote what could almost be described as a biography of a house, and I was captivated.

Being of serf and peasant stock, I come from one of those families with virtually no family history. There were no Bibles or heirlooms to point me in the right direction. Everything I’ve learned has been from scratch. And as frustrating as that’s been, I’ve often wondered about folks at the opposite end of the spectrum–people who are surrounded with so much family history that it’s overwhelming. What’s it like being enveloped by centuries’ worth of documents and objects? What’s it like when libraries have collections of your ancestors’ papers? What’s it like when newspapers feature thousands of articles on your illustrious forebears? And just how do you deal with all of it?

Colt gave me a rare peek into this world, and I found it fascinating. The beach house that’s been in his family for a century is a museum of sorts, and he methodically picks through it all. I alternated between extremes of jealousy and sympathy, but could actually relate on some levels (such as the family’s obsession with tennis).

Does the house stay in the family? I can’t reveal that! You’ll have to read it yourself, but I can confidently tell you that it will be a worthwhile investment of your time.

Living Among Headstones
I guess it’s the voyeur in me (I admit that I’m one of those who likes to walk at night, looking in all the lighted windows to see how others live). First, I had to see what life was like for those upper class families who own seaside mansions, and then I had to probe into the life of a cemetery sexton. In Living Among Headstones: Life in a Country Cemetery, Shannon Applegate tells of her experiences taking over the Pioneer Graveyard in Yoncalla, Oregon. It’s five acres, with plenty of trees, and also happens to hold several generations of her own family.

This one was an eye-opener. It never occurred to me just how much work it is to maintain even a relatively small, rural cemetery. If you’re not coordinating with conglomerate funeral homes and award-winning monument makers, you’re probably grooming trees, marking sites for gravediggers, fretting over the settling of old graves, fielding letters from genealogists, coping with actual or wannabe juvenile delinquents, rescuing a stranger’s cremains, and dealing with death threats. Wait a minute. Dealing with death threats? Yup. Apparently, some folks feel reeaaally strongly about plastic flowers and other memorabilia being removed from gravesites during clean-up efforts.

Applegate is a thoughtful writer and simply a good person. It’s comforting to think of someone like her protecting one of countless country cemeteries that could otherwise be forgotten and neglected. I’m glad she decided to share her story in this book. I only hope there are more Applegates out there.

What Should I Read Next?
Isn’t this a great gig I’ve got going? Lounging around, reading books, and then writing articles about them? I tell my husband that I’m working, but I’m not sure he’s convinced! So which book should be my companion for my next lolling-on-the-couch session? If you’ve got any suggestions, please post a comment to this article. I’ll keep an eye out for my next “homework” assignment.

Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak, co-author (with Ann Turner) of Trace Your Roots with DNA: Using Genetic Tests to Explore Your Family Tree (as well as In Search of Our Ancestors, Honoring Our Ancestors and They Came to America), can be contacted through,, and

Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak, co-author (with Ann Turner) of Trace Your Roots with DNA: Using Genetic Tests to Explore Your Family Tree (as well as In Search of Our Ancestors, Honoring Our Ancestors and They Came to America), can be contacted through,, and

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36 thoughts on “Genealogical Books in Disguise, by Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak

  1. Megan,
    I also enjoy books that have some genealogical or historical theme to them. The Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon is one that combines both historical and genealogical themes in one place, along with a little time travel. It’s fiction, but very well written and in later novels, gives you a sense of how our nation was born and the hardships the settlers went through.

  2. If you have British ancestors it’s also worth contacting the local family history society for the area the family originated from. They often know of special studies done on trades and occupations in the area. Or you could contact the local studies library and ask what they have. [You may then have to get someone to go and look at material or buy a book for you, but it could be worthwhile.] For example, my ancestors came from the Midlands and I managed to get a book on Needlemakers in the area. In Dorset, where I live now, studies have been done on Flax and Hemp growing in the area. You may actually find your ancestor’s name mentioned, but even if you don’t you’ll get a better picture of how they lived.

  3. The following is from a press release about the republication of this book. There is a lot of genealogical data about the Merrill family included. It is interesting reading.

    A new edition of The Old Guide’s Story (TEACH Services, Inc., 2006), written by Adirondack Guide Charles E. Merrill (1863–1935), is now available.

    Charles E. Merrill, chronicler of much of the early history of Chateaugay Lake, was a member of the pioneer family for whom the community of Merrill was named. His father was Darius Merrill, famous as a hotel proprietor, woodsman and guide, when sportsmen first began to invade the Adirondacks. Charles E. Merrill followed in his father’s footsteps and likewise became known as one of the most reliable guides in the North Country.

    The Old Guide’s Story, originally printed in serial form in 1930 in the Malone Evening Telegram, was edited and published in book form in 1973 by Fay Welch.

    For the new edition of The Old Guide’s Story, illustrator and cover artist Tad Welch has produced seven new illustrations (including two new maps of the Chateaugay Lake area) and a beautiful color painting featured on the dust jacket, as well as two illustrations that were never used in the 1973 edition. Additionally, the new edition is jam-packed with over 200 historical photos (some never before published, including many from Charles E. Merrill’s estate), postcards, paintings, maps, and other artwork, of many of the places and characters described by Charles E. Merrill in this highly entertaining and captivating historical account.

    The Old Guide’s Story (352 pp., hardback) can be purchased locally at the House of History in Malone, Write One in Chateaugay, as well as online at

  4. Hi Megan,
    I’d have to agree with Caroline, the Outlander series was a great group of books to read. Very addicting and also a good workout on your arm muscles! I walk to the library all the time and each of those books must have weighed at least 5 pounds! I spent my Spring reading all five books in the series and find myself waiting to read the next one, if there is a next one, that is!
    I enjoy your columns immensely, keep up the great work!
    Love, Beth

  5. Hello Megan: Thanks for todays article july 31,2006 on Shannon Applegate and her cause. I will try to find the book. I am a descendent of Annie Applegate Kruse who grew up in Yoncalla Oregon and have a small history of that town in my possession. Now that I know of this possible relative and more history I can add to my knowledge. I will be atending your lectures on the November cruise and will bring it along. I am eager to gain more knowledge on that trip. Anita Schultz.

  6. Reading these posts was very interesting. I have written a book, family history /historical fiction much like I have been reading about on these posts. I am stumped on what to do about publishers. Where to start. Any advise/

  7. I have read several fictional based on true fact books that I believe are excellent for background on the areas our families came from, i.e., all of John Jakes books; The Australians series (12 books about the founding of Australia) (out of print now); and “Hidden in Plain View” a secret story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad. by Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard, Ph.D.

  8. Megan,
    I have just finished a book(fiction) about genealogy and DNA. It’s really a mystery/suspense type of book but the main character is a professional genealogist. The way the she goes about her job is very interesting and DNA plays a big part of the story. It’s called “Always Time To Die” by Elizabeth Lowell. I like her books as she does a lot of research to bring her story to life. Hope you read it and enjoy it too.

  9. Dear Megan, Having just finished a newly published book, I am anxious to recommend MAYFLOWER by Nathaniel Philbrick. One doesn’t need to have had ancestors in the region to find this well-researched history a great read. It was enlightening after our myth-filled American history lessons. I had never heard of King Philip’s War, let alone how it bankrupted New England. Finding an ancestors was an unexpected bonus.

  10. A great book is ALICE’S TULIPS” by Sandra Dallas
    After all the Civil War Vets we find with all their information I have thought…what were the women doing while they were gone?…..Now I know,making quilts for the war and trying to farm so they could eat until their men came home . Each chapter starts with a little history of quilt patterns. Did you know that the Log Cabin quilt helped the slaves to find where a safe house was? “Legend says that these quilts played a part in the Abolitionist movement. Runaway slaves knew that when a Log Cabin quilt was made with a black center and hung on a clothesline or thrown over a fence, the house was a safe stop on the Underground Railroad.”
    The story takes place in IA…Slatyfork is the town which of course dosn’t exist but they talk about Fort Madison,Keokuk, and Galena, IL.

  11. I have the book, THE CHILDREN’S BLIZZARD. My ancestors lived in the Dakota Territory. Although this book is fiction, it is based on the blizzard of January 12, 1888 that broke over the Dakota Territory.
    Promises were made by Railroad companies and the US govenment gave almost everyone 160 acres free and clear for a small investment and five years of farming. Being the owners of one’s own land was the opportunity of a life time. They understand the hardships of living in such a harsh country.
    The blizzard of January 12, 1888 changed all of that. Withing hours the temperature dropped down to 40 degrees below zero. Farmers were caught out in their fields and children were either going to school or coming home from school.
    As I read this book, I could only cry with the parents worrying about their children and husbands who didn’t come home. There was no way to know what had happened.
    Now I understand more the hardships that my ancestors and all other pioneers faced as they tamed the wild frontier.
    As you read this book, you too, will have a better understanding of what courage it took to be an American pioneer.

  12. Hi Megan! I have always enjoyed your articles — and TRY to follow your tips! Reading historical books (fiction & non) gives great information on how people lived as well as actual historical events — all of which give us a better feeling for our ancestors! I highly recommend a book that gives insight on the genealogical “quest” for our roots and uses historical perspective, but energizes every ethnic group to “dig deeper” and to “keep digging” — because information is in amazing places!

    The book: SOMERSET HOMECOMING: Recovering a Lost Heritage by Dorothy Spruill Redford with Michael D’Orso. [][ISBN 0-8078-4843-3]

    Every person can relate to Mrs. Redford, an untrained genaoligist or historian who simply started asking everyday questions. That created more questions. That demanded research and a stubborn search for the reality behind family lore. That created pride in KNOWING; discovering people from scraps of information, her people.

    Mrs. Redford took it a step further than most of us and shared her knowledge with her now-extended family and the world. Although hers is an African-American story, it should inspire EVERY person to explore his/her ethnic roots and how they became “Americans”. As one person at the Homecoming stated: “Today I can tell my children where I come from. No more will I have to say I came from Africa. I am from …. I have roots.” Translate that to “Ireland” or “Germany” or “China” or “Russia”. Each journey to America was different; each journey across America was different. Mrs. Redford’s journey into the past is the same for all of us.

    This book was highly recommended to me for “inspiration” as I started an Underground Railroad Museum at a site with pioneer roots in our county. We are showcasing the challenges the UGRR movement against a background of the people who settled Central IL — the good, the bad, and the ugly. We hope to inspire visitors to walk in history, find their personal history, and create a better story for future generations to discover. Mrs. Redford’s story is an inspiration for all of us.

    Hope you enjoy the “read” and agree. LIN

  13. Thank you for so many wonderfully written and valuable articles, Megan; do keep up the good work.

    I would like to mention a source of great genealogical value that has, I think, been wrongly overlooked.

    Allan W. Eckert’s series, The Winning of America consisting of historical narratives of America. The 6th book titled: Twilight of Empire; Little,Brown, October 1988 & Bantam Edition: July, 1989; LC#: 88-7305. Begins with July, 1767 and ends on “October 3rd. 1838 when at the age of seventy-one years, Black Hawk died quietly in his sleep, and he was buried beneath a fine old oak tree five hundred yards from where he died [332].” This volume’s principal event is the Black Hawk War, fought primarily by militia units raised from counties in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan/Wisconsin, and Missouri.

    His books are all ‘every name’ indexed; complete bibliography lists; and his “Amplification Notes” convince one of his attention to detail and depth of his research. They are called “fiction” due to the fact that through his comprehensive research he was able to present the facts in ‘you are there’ style that make them such a joy to read.

    I have found mention of two of my ancestors – just everyday people, but best of all; I have now a very real sense of what life for my ancestors was like. It was not at all easy and I’m so proud of them all. And owe many thanks to Allan W. Eckert for his fabulous works. ……..B. Daniels, Cottonwood, CA

  14. The Meadow, by James Galvin, is about several generations of several families living on the Colorado-Wyoming border, covering from the first pioneers to the present. It is not meant to be a genealogical book but I think all family historians would appreciate his skill in bringing the past generations to life.

  15. First I would heartily recommend “Wisconsin Death Trip,” which I believe has been reprinted. Next, “Along the Black Hawk Trails,” by William Stark. The former confirms that pioneering resulted in failure as often as success for those who thought they had nothing to lose but to “go for it.” The latter book tells of how a cholera epidemic got introduced into the upper midwest, accounting for many of the headstones in local graveyards on which whole families are recorded within very short time of each other. It left me with a very strong respect for those ancestors of mine who survived.

  16. For a look at life along the Delaware and Raritan Canal, New Jersey, in the 1850’s, check out “High-Water Cargo” by Edith M. Dorian, published by Rutgers University Press.

  17. Readers who enjoy The Big House by George Howe Colt will also enjoy Red House: Being a Mostly Accurate Account of New England’s Oldest Continuously Lived-In House by Sarah Messer.

  18. I was very excited to read your three articles and the comments by others for books with a genealogical theme. I would like to recommend “Seventrees” by Janice Young Brooks (published in paperback by Signet Book in October 1981) as an excellent historical novel covering three generations of pioneer women who traveled to Kansas in the 1800s, enduring many hardships and overcoming obstacles. While historically correct, the family relationships of these women is what makes this book a winner.

  19. The subject of genealogy-based novels/historical fiction is one near and dear to my heart. In fact, I have a Carnival of Genealogy coming out on that very subject on August 4th. I recently reviewed a book you might consider reading Megan. It’s called Against a Crimson Sky, by James Martin. The release date is August 8th. My review with links to excerpts and the author’s web site is at:

  20. Hi Megan,

    Try reading some of Tim Cockey’s mystery novels. It portrays a local young man who is a mortician in the Fells Point area of Baltimore City. Tim’s last name “Cockey” is known throughout Baltimore City, Balto. County and many portions of of the State of Maryland for at least the Last one hundred years. In fact, there is a town just north of the city that is named after his ancestors.His stories are light, humorous, and hard to put down.His descroptions of various ares within the city and county are extremely accurate. One can obviously see his humor in the titles of some his books which are “Hearse Of A Different Color”, “The Hearse You Came In On”, “Murder In The Hearse Degree”, etc.Very enjoyable reading.

  21. Hello Megan,

    Thank you for the opportunity to recommend a book that I published in 2005 called, Always A Blessing in the End: The Chronicles of the Four Ancestral Lineages of Ben Ivy & Ruth Thompson. Here is a review from a reader named Don Ivy:

    “The book at hand is a world of informative and intellectual reading for the whole family. When this book was introduced to me, it took a couple of weeks for me to start reading. When I was able to start it, I read the preface and from that time on I just could not put it down. I was spellbound by the intricate details woven through time and space following this family through trials and tribulations with the only armor they had, the Shield of the Almighty. I must say that this book is good reading for the novice and the well informed.”

    In the meantime, let me compliment you on your articles. They are always informative as well as fun to read. Good Job!

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  23. Read Doc Susie: the true Story of a Country Physician in the Colorado Rockies, by Virginia Cornell, Ivy Books, 1991, ballantine, 1992. This bio is not fictionalized; Ms. Cornell consulted people who actually knew Doc Susie od had relevant local information and Susie’s Heir and nephew Roger Brady of Michigan. A good example of how one might go about writing a family history. (Ethel Barrymore wanted the film rights but Doc Susie did not want that kind of fame–but her life would have made an interesting TV series.

  24. Megan, this is my favorite genre of books. I have yet to read one that didn’t provide valuable information that I could use in my own research, even if the topic seems to have nothing to do with my ancestors. Have you ever heard of the “Eastland”? Neither had I, but “The Sinking of the Eastland, America’s Forgotten Tragedy,” by Jay Bonansinga, Citadel Press, 2004, is a fantastic read and incredible true story. The “Eastland” sank on July 24, 1915, in the Chicago River in broad daylight, within feet of its wharf, with 10,000 people watching. 844 people drowned. Gleaned from interviews, eyewitness accounts, and archival material, the author gives not only names, but mini-biographies of many victims, rescuers, and city officials that were involved. Hope you get a chance to read it!

  25. The Outlander books are fantastic; I’ve also read Somerset Homecoming which was good too. Read The Sweeter the Berry by Shirley Haislip. It is her search for her mother’s sister who ‘passed’ for white in the 1920s and 1930s. The family split along white and black lines, and those who passed for white had to drop contact with the family members who kept to their black roots so as not to expose that they were part black. It recounts her genealogical search back a few generations, trying to find out how it was that some members were light enough to pass for white and then the sisters’ (& cousins) reunion. She has written a sequel to it which I haven’t read yet. Also, Oprah did a book that was a fictionalized account of a real Creole family in Louisiana called Cane River….or I think that was the name of it! The author’s last name was Tademy.

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  27. It’s a wonderful idea! This “Book Club” thing: to share books we have read and loved. I would like to share the following but first, let me say: I do not read books about war. Any war. That’s like watching grass grow.

    However, for those who haven’t read this author already, please give him a try. I cannot put one of these books down once I start it. All are fiction based on fact.

    The following are all from Jeff Shaara: “Rise to Rebellion”, “The Glorious Cause”. A series of two about the Revolutionary War told from the aspect of the soldiers and officers in their thoughts and words. Good background information about the Revolutionary War. New perspective, nothing like we had to endure in history classes in school.

    Jeff Shaara: “Gone For Soldiers” about the Mexican War 1846-1848. Good insight to Robert E. Lee and U.S. Grant when they fought together in Mexico for Manifest Destiny and a lead in to the next books about the Civil War.

    Michael Shaara (father of Jeff): “The Killer Angels” and Jeff Shaara: “The Last Full Measure” about the Civil War. In “Killer Angels” Lee is growing old and has coronary disease, but he is still fighting valiantly and you can feel his mental and physical pain.

    These are not strictly books about genealogy, but for myself, I had ancestors in all these wars and even though the books are fiction, they have provided me with hours of entertainment and enlightenment.

    I promise you a good read in each of them even if you have no interest in American wars. You know the names of our war heros from those historical times and you will know them personally in these books.

  28. I have read several of the books you mentioned. I just finished reading “The Widow of the South” by Robert Hicks. It is a novel but based on a Civil War battle at Franklin, TN where an estimated 9,200 men died. And about the McGavock family whose home was amony many others in the area that became hospitals that day.

  29. Re comment 29. Ms McDowell did not comment on “Widow of the South.” My comment is “deadly!” My book group of eight women chose it because of rave reviews, and only two of us (I was the leader) finished it. No one else could get through it. There are too many really good books out there and life is too short to read one as dull, poorly written, and depressing as this one. Some of these other books sound interesting; I think I’ll read one of them.

  30. Dear Megan I am not computer literate, so everything I learn is by trail and error. I certainly have learned a lot from your articles. Every time I find a relative, I get so excited I call my family about the newest one. There is hope for even me, keep up the great work. Thanks Bernie

  31. Online auctions are a great place to look for books about your family. I recently picked up a 1914 copy of “Korsbanaret”, the yearbook of the Augustana Lutheran church.

    My great great grandfather was an Augustana pastor, so he is mentioned twice in the context of his mission work to Canada in 1898-1903. The best part is I got it for less than $10.00!

  32. In the back of the book “The other Boleyn Girl’ by Phillipa Gregory there were a few historical references. On a whim I deceided to search for present day descendents of Mary Boleyn. To my surprise, one of her children (Henry Carey)’s line of descent led right into my husband’s line of descent. At the time Henry Carey was widely beleived to be Henry VIII’s son as Mary Boleyn had been Henry’s mistress. One never knows where one will find a genealogical surprise.

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