Critical Family History Book Review: Bella’s Legacy

Bella’s Legacy

Who was Bella, and what might be her legacy? In her debut novel, Luanna Meyer fictionalizes four generations of her family history, with a focus on the women and their life choices. Journalist Bella Colquhoun emerges as the novel’s fictionalized writer. Young widowhood, lost babies, triumph and regret, conflict and reconciliation, dreams taken up and dreams deferred — these are some of life’s turning points that Bella’s Legacy explores.

This novel opens with Bella, elderly by now, wondering how her life would have been, had she had a child. As she studies a diagram of a family tree that locates her within the family she married into, she reflects on the lives of the various women in the tree. What choices did their lives present to them? How did they deal with those choices? Which of them made the most of their lives? What might their stories suggest for young women today? (I appreciated the family tree diagram, flipping to it frequently to locate specific characters.)

Bella acts as a bookend, appearing at the beginning and in the epilogue, and as a young woman as the stories unfold chronologically. Meyers organized Bella’s Legacy around key moments in each woman’s life. These are moments in which the women had to confront major decisions, be it because of tragedy, personal relationship, powerful aspiration, or unexpected opportunity. As members of two connected extended families, the women’s lives overlap, creating braided stories that converse with one another.

Meyers researched the lives of the women in as much detail as possible, and the contexts in which they lived. As she explains in the acknowledgements at the end of the book, she spent much time scouring libraries and archival sources in Wisconsin and Michigan, where most of the stories take place, in order to build portraits that accurately reflect the time and place. She then blew life into the characters, rendering them through a mixture of dialog and vivid description.

This novel is an engaging read. I got caught up in the stories themselves, which is what I expect of a good novel. For family historians, Bella’s Legacy also demonstrates a way of communicating history, in this case in a way that focuses on gender at the levels of personal identity and social context. In other words, Bella’s Legacy demonstrates Critical Family History as told through fiction.

Oh, and what was Bella’s legacy? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

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