I need your brain cells

I’ve got a bookly question for you. I have been thinking about recent books which tell one tiny, forgotten story and tell it beautifully, but also use that story to illuminate a much broader social trend.

There is, for instance, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, which tells the story of a poor black woman whose cells were used without her knowledge for scientific experiments, then follows the fortunes of her descendents to examine the ethics of biomedical experimentation and the effects of structural inequality.

Another example is Blood Done Sign My Name by Timothy Tyson, which narrates a racially motivated killing in the Southern town of the author’s boyhood to push forward a larger argument about the unacknowledged role of violence, or the threat of violence, in the civil rights movement.

And there is The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, which actually uses three stories of black Americans who moved from the South to the North in the first half of the twentieth century as part of the six million people who made the same move in search of economic opportunity and freedom from oppression.

It just so happens that all three of this books are about race in American history. Which brings me to my question: can you think of any recent books (narrative histories written for a smart general audience) that do for gender and women’s history what these books do for race? It also just so happens that all three of these books employ memoir, but that is not as relevant here. I’d love it if you’d post a comment or email me at info@amyreading.com. And yes, this is related to a book I’m thinking of writing.


  • What about the Murder of Helen Jewett by Patricia Klein Cohen? About the murder of a prostitute in early 19thc nyc but also so much more.

    • Yes, and there’s Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America’s Soul by Karen Abbott, also about prostitutes. These are good. But surely there are some good recent narratives about women in American history that are not about murder victims or whores?! More, more!

  • The Entertainer: Movies, Magic, and My Father’s Twentieth Century by Margaret Talbot.

    It’s not a tiny story, necessarily, but it does evince a broad and historically substantial arc from the life of a bit player… A really interesting work, from my disciplinary/personal perspective.

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