Monday, November 16, 2009

Mystery, History, Ancestry

Mystery, History, Ancestry
Winter Reading Possibilities

I like mysteries and historical fiction — especially ones where the settings are in a country where I’ve traveled — or plan to visit.

Recently I read two books that were so good I’m still thinking about them. Both were historical fiction; both had some elements of mystery; and — frosting on the cake — both had genealogy elements woven into the plot.

The first book is Tracy Chevalier’s The Virgin Blue. It is the story of Ella, an American woman who moves to rural France and becomes obsessed with uncovering her family’s French past; and Ella’s ancestor, Isabelle, a woman living in 16th century France during the persecution of the Huguenots. The two intertwined strands eventually converge as Ella discovers the truth about Isabelle’s fate. It combines vivid historical fiction with a genealogical detective story which uses an old Bible, civil records, church records, and lots of serendipity (far-fetched?) to pull the stories together. Chavalier also includes amazing descriptions of both France and Switzerland. She is the author of The Lady and the Unicorn and Girl with a Pearl Earring.

Some related URLs and a few books from the SBCGS S
ahyun Library:

History of the Huguenot Emigration to America, Vol. I, II Baird, Charles W. 929 W2 BAI v. 1-2
Huguenot Ancestry Currer-Briggs, Noel 929 H2 CUR
Huguenot refugees in the settling of colonial America / Gannon, Peter Steven 973.2 H2 GAN

The second book is The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent. Kent is herself a tenth-generation descendant of Martha Carrier, one of the first women to be tried and hanged in Salem in 1692. This book is a fantastic and very personal perspective of what happened at the Salem Witch Trials. Kent weaves dramatic secrets throughout the mesmerizing family saga which is told through the eyes of Martha’s nine-year-old daughter, Sarah.

In Kent’s own words: “I'll never forget the moment I discovered that the stories my mother and grandmother had been telling me about an ancestor who had been hanged for being a witch were true. I first heard about Martha Carrier, one of the first women to be tried and hanged in Salem in 1692, when I was a child of about eight or nine. I grew up with stories of my mother's family, the Carriers, and their involvement in the witch hysteria: the trials, the imprisonment, and, in Martha's case, the hanging.”

This book might motivate some of us to take an incident from our historical past and create a best-selling novel out of it! Maybe I should return to Salem and do some on-the-spot research — for my great-uncle proclaimed that we were descendants of Sarah Morey, another young woman questioned for witchcraft.

In the appendix, Kathleen Kent suggests books for further reading. One of them was already on my shelf, unread: In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692 by Mary Beth Norton. It’s a scholarly look at the causes of the Salem witch trials. I’m reading it now — although much slower because, although fascinating, it makes me want to take notes for the upcoming exam. (For the author’s genealogical connections to the Salem Witch Trials, refer to the Acknowledgments on page 427.)

Some URLs for more information: (NEH funded; outstanding site!)

Submitted by Diane Sylvester


  1. I have The Virgin Blue gathering dust on my headboard. It's time I dusted it off and read it. Thanks for the winter reading suggestions.

  2. Love the title of this post and, also, the great short reviews. Will add all of these to my book list!

  3. I have just finished The Virgin Blue. A strange quirky book, but it does involve some ancestral research in France in church archives. This was a surprise as I have had it for about 3 years unread. I have it for loan if you are interested.