Category Archives: Genealogy in Fiction

Book Review: The Winter Sea, Susanna Kearsley

Susanna Kearsley’s novel The Winter Sea is the story of writer Carolyn McClelland, who relocates to Cruden Bay in Scotland in order to get the feel of the location for the novel she is currently writing about the 1708 Jacobite uprising—one of the lesser known skirmishes of the Jacobite Rebellion. Carrie takes a cottage in the village near Slains Castle and becomes friendly with a local family, Jimmy Keith and his two sons Stuart and Graham.  After her agent suggests she try telling her story from the point of view of a female character, since Carrie can’t seem to find a male character’s voice, Carrie decides on a whim to write one of her ancestors, Sophia Paterson McClelland, into the story. Suddenly she is writing faster than she’s ever written before, and when she discovers that many of the things she’s writing actually happened, even though she hadn’t consulted history books before she wrote, she begins to wonder if she is remembering her ancestor’s life. Meanwhile, both Keith brothers begin to show an interest in more than Carrie’s writing, but Carrie finds herself drawn to the one with eyes like the winter sea and begins modeling her hero, John Moray, after Graham, a history lecturer at the university in Aberdeen.

One of the reasons I liked this book was the genealogy thread that ran through it. Genealogy happens to be one of my own interests, and I can always sympathize with characters who find it interesting, too. Carrie’s discoveries about the lives of her ancestors fascinate her father, who is able to trace the family tree back one more generation due to Carrie’s insights as she writes. I expected to find myself more interested in Carrie’s novel, the part of the book that takes place in the past, because I have an absolute fascination for Scottish history. However, I found myself more drawn to the characters in the present—Jimmy, Graham, Stuart, Carrie’s agent Jane, and even Carrie herself. This book covers a topic that I myself have wondered about: is it even possible that memories can be passed down genetically? It seems far-fetched, but it works well in this novel. It’s a fun idea, anyway, and a nice alternative to some of the other paranormal tropes that have gained traction in recent years.

Kearsley is able to capture the past vividly in the sections of Carrie’s novel intertwined with the present-day story. She has included a historical note, and explained her painstaking attention to historical events as much as possible. I was surprised to discover that few of her characters were invented. It can sometimes be hard to make real historical people do what you want them to do when you’re writing about them, which is why, I think, that some writers of historical fiction prefer to use fictional characters.

The ending of the novel satisfies both the requirements of history and the requirements of historical romance. It’s a solid novel, and I would recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in Scotland or genealogy.

Cross-posted from Much Madness is Divinest Sense.



Have you ever heard of NaNoWriMo? The goal for participants of National Novel Writing Month is to write 50,000 words during the month of November. It doesn’t have to be good, nor does it have to be published, but my hope is that my product will be both. I will be participating this year, mainly because I think I have a story to tell. I have some characters walking around in my head, and because they are based on an amalgam of several of my ancestors, I felt it appropriate to share my plans here. I told my department chair some of my family stories, and she told me “You should write a book!” She meant a memoir, but I think fiction will give me more freedom and still allow me to tell the stories of my family.

The working title for my project is Quicksand, and you can follow my efforts at my author profile.

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane

Readers of this blog may not realize I have a book blog where I discuss all my reading. I am currently reading a book I think would appeal to genealogists, and I want to cross-post a blog entry from that blog here in the hopes that some of you might enjoy it, too.

I am about halfway through The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, and what a delightful read it has been so far. Not since I first picked up Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander have I read a book that contains a confluence of so many things that interest me or that I can relate to. First of all, I was taken aback when the protagonist, Connie, referred to her grandmother as “Granna.” That’s what I call my grandmother, and I have always believed I invented it. I had to do a Google search to assure myself that other women have indeed been called Granna. You can learn more about my own Granna here.

Second, Connie studies Colonial American history, a time period I have always found fascinating. She finds a mysterious key with a piece of parchment tucked inside its pipe or barrel or whatever you want to call the hollow part of an old key. The parchment has the name Deliverance Dane written on it. Connie sets out on a quest to find out more about Deliverance, whom she discovers was part of the Salem Witch Trials furor in 1692. I have been fascinated with this aspect of American history since about fourth grade. I just couldn’t believe that people in my own country, which prides itself now on freedom, had acted in such a bizarre fashion. I still don’t understand it.

Finally, in the last chapter I read, Connie is reading the diary of Prudence Lamson Bartlett. I was struck by how similar the diary entries were to my own great-great-grandmother Stella Bowling Cunningham’s own diary—so devoid of comment on emotions (although Stella occasionally discusses being irritated at someone), so repetitive in their description of the seemingly menial tasks of life. But as Connie says, “In some respects, Prudence’s daily work was her inner life” (158). In the last entry that Connie recounts, this is the entire text:

Febr. 24, 1763. Too cauld to write. Mother dies. (163)

I felt tears well into my eyes, despite the seemingly lack of emotion on the part of Prudence. Connie ascribes it to Prudence’s “cold practicality, her obstinate refusal to reveal her feelings, no matter how culturally proscribed” (163). My own Grandma Stella’s diary was so similar in the respects of recounting the weather, the daily work, where she went, what she bought and how much it cost. I could feel her relief when she wrote the following entry for April 4, 1894:

I paid Mrs. Bragg $7.50 for board & am now even. Owe no man anything (i.e. in $ and cts.)

On the day when her own grandmother died, she wrote:


Homer & I went to town early.
Grandma died at 6 P.M.
Mr. Amos came & we came home.
Bought a buggy from John Houston $20.00.
Papa was at Aunt Panthea’s.

It couldn’t be more like Prudence Bartlett’s diary in the way it recounts so much pain alongside the mundane. It’s so spooky that if I didn’t know better, I’d swear Katherine Howe must have cribbed my genealogy blog! If you like, you can read my Grandma Stella’s journal (PDF). I transcribed it from a photocopy of the original.

Staying up at night reading this book under the low light of a book lamp over the last few nights has been a pleasure indeed, and I can hardly wait to see what happens next in Connie’s research.

Books for Genealogists

Before I discuss the topic referenced in my title, I want to explain that the biggest reason for my absence is that another blog has been stealing my content (as well as that of other genealogy bloggers).  I didn’t want to post something here that this other blogger would just steal and claim as their own.  Taking an entire post and then linking back to me without making it clear that I wrote that entire post is not proper attribution, and I believe it is a violation of copyright; however, Google, who owns Blogger, the service hosting that blog, will not take the blog down unless repeated copyright violations are reported, which of course puts all of the responsibility on my shoulders.  I found it depressing to post here knowing my content would just be taken, especially when it is such personal content.  For instance, my grandfather, whom I have written about so much on this blog, has recently suffered a stroke, and even though he is on the mend, he is not well, and it impressed upon me yet again the importance of talking to your grandparents and other family and learning their stories before it is too late and you wish you had.  It makes me feel sick inside to know these thoughts will be stolen, but I am not going to let that person steal my blog.  In taking my content, that blogger has prevented me from posting at all, and it makes me angry.

On to my topic.

Most genealogists work alone and focus on their own families, but one thing I have learned since I began blogging about genealogy is that all family stories are interesting.  I have learned so much from my fellow bloggers about the practice of genealogy, and I have also learned that we are the preservers of the history that didn’t make it into the textbooks.  I have enjoyed learning about your families.  I don’t think I am alone in enjoying fiction that touches on subject matter of interest to genealogists.

Louise Erdrich’s recently published novel The Plague of Doves begins with the horrible murder of a white family in Pluto, North Dakota, a town on an Ojibwe reservation.  Four Ojibwe — one of them a boy — are lynched for the crime.  As time passes, the descendants of the victims and lynch mob intermarry creating a complex web of family history.  Pluto is indeed one of those towns where everyone knows everyone else, and almost everyone is related to everyone else somehow.  I think genealogists would find this study of generational baggage really interesting.  I am about 2/3 of the way through the book, and I am really enjoying it.

Years ago, I read Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, the first in a time-travel series that I hesitate to label romance, though others might.  The book begins with a husband interested in genealogy who takes his wife on a second honeymoon trip to Scotland with the side benefit of being able to research his family history.  As his wife learns when she accidentally is transported 200 years into the past, sometimes relatives that look like interesting characters on paper are not folks we’d really want to meet.  I do think genealogists would find the book interesting because almost all of us have wanted at some point to do as the protagonist Claire does and go back in time to learn more about an ancestor and perhaps even get to know them (I should make it clear that she doesn’t meet up with any of her own ancestors, but she does meet her husband’s).

I tried to read Lalita Tademy’s Cane River, but was distracted and set it aside.  I haven’t picked it up again, but I do plan to eventually.  Cane River came out of Tademy’s genealogical research and is a novelization of her own family’s story.  Who among us hasn’t thought about doing something like that sometime?

Alex Haley’s Roots is, of course, the perennial family saga, that sweeping testament to the power of learning about your family’s history and chronicling it.  I know that the novel has been criticized.  Haley claims he unknowingly plagiarized Harold Courlander’s The African, and Margaret Walker charged that he also plagiarized her novel Jubilee in a case that was dismissed.  In addition, some of the information in the novel that Haley claims to be true was proven false by genealogists.  But I think Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a friend of Haley’s, has a good perspective: “Most of us feel it’s highly unlikely that Alex actually found the village whence his ancestors sprang. Roots is a work of the imagination rather than strict historical scholarship. It was an important event because it captured everyone’s imagination.”

While Anne Rice is not to everyone’s taste, I admit I found her novel The Witching Hour interesting from a genealogical perspective.  The Witching Hour is a multi-generational saga about a family of witches, the Mayfairs.  The saga begins with Suzanne Mayfair, who accidentally awakens a spirit we later learn is called Lasher.  Lasher binds himself to the family and attaches himself in particular to one witch in each generation.  The family is haunted by Lasher for 300 years as he embarks on his quest to become flesh and blood.  The family is plagued by incest.  I didn’t so much enjoy the parts that Rice set in the present, but she has a true eye for detailing the past, and I really liked meeting all the colorful characters in this family.  I should also mention that one of her vampire characters in The Queen of the Damned has kept a family tree of all of her descendants through female lines (as the male lines might not truly be her descendants!), and the funny thing to me when I read it is that one young woman doesn’t, somehow, think it’s odd or unusual that her family would have records of themselves going back about two millennia.  The genealogist in me wanted to shake her a little bit for that.

What’s your favorite “genealogy” novel?

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