Spotlight On: Biography, History, & Memoir

Biographies, memoir, and history books are popular holiday gifts, and this year we wanted to highlight a few great options by and about BIPOC people and cultures.

Also, did you know that the Friday after Thanksgiving is Native American Heritage Day in the United States? That’s why half of the picks on this list are specifically by and about Native American peoples

If someone on your list enjoys reading American history and biographies, consider gifting one of these titles that show US history is more than presidents and famous battles. From a charismatic jewel thief, to musings from a Native American comedian, to a personal look at the history and effects of the Great Migration, to a rethinking of North America’s Hispanic heritage, and much more—each of these 12 titles will introduce readers to unique facets of our country’s complex history and culture.

El Norte: The Epic and Forgotten Story of Hispanic North America by Carrie Gibson, $18
Because of the commonality of the English language, as well as the celebrated origin tales of the Mayflower and the rebellion of the British colonies, the United States has prized its Anglo heritage above all others. However, as Carrie Gibson explains with great depth and clarity in El Norte, the nation has much older Spanish roots–ones that have long been unacknowledged or marginalized. The Hispanic past of the United States predates the arrival of the Pilgrims by a century, and has been every bit as important in shaping the nation as it exists today.

Diamond Doris: The True Story of the World’s Most Notorious Jewel Thief, by Doris Payne, $16
Growing up during the Depression in the segregated coal town of Slab Fork, West Virginia, Doris Payne was told her dreams were unattainable for poor black girls like her. Surrounded by people who sought to limit her potential, Doris vowed to turn the tables after the owner of a jewelry store threw her out when a white customer arrived. Using her southern charm, quick wit, and fascination with magic as her tools, Payne began shoplifting small pieces of jewelry from local stores. Over the course of six decades, her talents grew with each heist. Becoming an expert world-class jewel thief, she daringly pulled off numerous diamond robberies. A rip-roaringly fun and exciting story as captivating and audacious as Catch Me if You Can and Can You Ever Forgive Me?–Diamond Doris is the portrait of a captivating anti-hero who refused to be defined by the prejudices and mores of a hypocritical society.

El Norte chronicles the sweeping and dramatic history of Hispanic North America from the arrival of the Spanish in the early 16th century to the present–from Ponce de Leon’s initial landing in Florida in 1513 to Spanish control of the vast Louisiana territory in 1762 to the Mexican-American War in 1846 and up to the more recent tragedy of post-hurricane Puerto Rico and the ongoing border acrimony with Mexico.

Staring Down the Tiger: Stories of Hmong American Women edited by Pa Der Vang, $17
Tsov tom, or tiger bite–an insult in Hmong culture–means you were stupid enough to approach a tiger and get bitten. In this remarkable new book, Hmong American women reclaim that phrase, showing in prose and poetry that they are strong enough and brave enough to stare down the tiger. Contributors celebrate the power of bonds between daughter and mother, sister and sister, and grandmother and granddaughter. Contributors to this volume bring life and character to the challenges of maintaining identity, navigating changes in gender roles, transitioning to American culture, and breaking through cultural barriers.

These pieces were brought together through the work of Hnub Tshiab: Hmong Women Achieving Together, an organization founded in St. Paul to be a catalyst for lasting cultural, institutional, and social change to improve the lives of Hmong women.

Wandering in Strange Lands: A Daughter of the Great Migration Reclaims Her Roots by Morgan Jerkins, $26
Between 1916 and 1970, six million black Americans left their rural homes in the South for jobs in cities in the North, West, and Midwest in a movement known as The Great Migration. But while this event transformed the complexion of America and provided black people with new economic opportunities, it also disconnected them from their roots, their land, and their sense of identity, argues Morgan Jerkins. In this fascinating and deeply personal exploration, she recreates her ancestors’ journeys across America, following the migratory routes they took from Georgia and South Carolina to Louisiana, Oklahoma, and California.

Following in their footsteps, Jerkins seeks to understand not only her own past, but the lineage of an entire group of people who have been displaced, disenfranchised, and disrespected throughout our history

Oak Flat: A Fight for Sacred Land in the American West by Lauren Redniss, $27
A powerful work of visual nonfiction about three generations of an Apache family struggling to protect sacred land from a multinational mining corporation, by National Book Award finalist Lauren Redniss, the acclaimed author of Thunder & Lightning.

Redniss’s deep reporting and haunting artwork anchor this mesmerizing human narrative. Oak Flat tells the story of a race-against-time struggle for a swath of American land, which pits one of the poorest communities in the United States against the federal government and two of the world’s largest mining conglomerates. The book follows the fortunes of two families with profound connections to the contested site: the Nosies, an Apache family whose teenage daughter is an activist and leader in the Oak Flat fight, and the Gorhams, a mining family whose patriarch was a sheriff in the lawless early days of Arizona statehood.

Spirit Run: A 6,000-Mile Marathon Through America’s Stolen Land by Noé Álvarez, $25
The son of working-class Mexican immigrants flees a life of labor in fruit-packing plants to run in a Native American marathon from Canada to Guatemala in this “stunning memoir that moves to the rhythm of feet, labor, and the many landscapes of the Americas” (Catriona Menzies-Pike, author of The Long Run).

At nineteen, Noé learned about a Native American/First Nations movement called the Peace and Dignity Journeys, epic marathons meant to renew cultural connections across North America. He dropped out of school and joined a group of Dené, Secwépemc, Gitxsan, Dakelh, Apache, Tohono O’odham, Seri, Purépecha, and Maya runners, all fleeing difficult beginnings. Telling their stories alongside his own, lvarez writes about a four-month-long journey from Canada to Guatemala that pushed him to his limits. Running through mountains, deserts, and cities, and through the Mexican territory his parents left behind, lvarez forges a new relationship with the land, and with the act of running, carrying with him the knowledge of his parents’ migration, and–against all odds in a society that exploits his body and rejects his spirit–the dream of a liberated future.

The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present by David Treuer, $16
A sweeping history–and counter-narrative–of Native American life from the Wounded Knee massacre to the present.

The received idea of Native American history–as promulgated by books like Dee Brown’s mega-bestselling 1970 Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee–has been that American Indian history essentially ended with the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee. Not only did one hundred fifty Sioux die at the hands of the U. S. Cavalry, the sense was, but Native civilization did as well.Growing up Ojibwe on a reservation in Minnesota, training as an anthropologist, and researching Native life past and present for his nonfiction and novels, David Treuer has uncovered a different narrative. Because they did not disappear–and not despite but rather because of their intense struggles to preserve their language, their traditions, their families, and their very existence–the story of American Indians since the end of the nineteenth century to the present is one of unprecedented resourcefulness and reinvention.

Edge of Morning: Native Voices Speak for the Bears Ears edited by Jacqueline Keeler, $10
In support of tribal efforts to protect the Bears Ears, Native writers bear testimony to the fragile and essential nature of this sacred landscape in America’s remote red rock country. Through poem and essay, these often-ignored voices explore the ways many native people derive tradition, sustenance, and cultural history from the Bears Ears. The fifteen contributors are multi-generational writers, poets, activists, teachers, students, and public officials, each with a strong tie to landscape and a particular story to tell. 

Carry: A Memoir of Survival on Stolen Land by Toni Jenson, $25
Toni Jensen grew up around guns: As a girl, she learned to shoot birds in rural Iowa with her father, a card-carrying member of the NRA. As an adult, she’s had guns waved in her face near Standing Rock, and felt their silent threat on the concealed-carry campus where she teaches. And she has always known that in this she is not alone. As a Métis woman, she is no stranger to the violence enacted on the bodies of Indigenous women, on Indigenous land, and the ways it is hidden, ignored, forgotten.

In Carry, Jensen maps her personal experience onto the historical, exploring how history is lived in the body and redefining the language we use to speak about violence in America. In the title chapter, Jensen connects the trauma of school shootings with her own experiences of racism and sexual assault on college campuses. “The Worry Line” explores the gun and gang violence in her neighborhood the year her daughter was born. “At the Workshop” focuses on her graduate school years, during which a workshop classmate repeatedly killed off thinly veiled versions of her in his stories. In “Women in the Fracklands,” Jensen takes the reader inside Standing Rock during the Dakota Access Pipeline protests and bears witness to the peril faced by women in regions overcome by the fracking boom.

Daybreak Woman: An Anglo-Dakota Life by Jane Lamm Carroll, $17
Daybreak Woman, also known as Jane Anderson Robertson, was born at a trading post on the Minnesota River in 1812 and lived for ninety-two years in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Canada, and South Dakota. The daughter of an Anglo-Canadian trader and a Scots-Dakota woman, for her first five decades, she was nurtured and respected in the multiethnic society that thrived for generations in the region.

But in the last forty years of the nineteenth century, this way of life was swamped and nearly annihilated as the result of Euro-American colonization and the forced exile of most Dakota and Euro-Dakota people from Minnesota after the US-Dakota War of 1862. In this extraordinary biography, historian Jane Lamm Carroll uses the life of one mixed-heritage woman and her family as a window into American society, honoring the past’s complexity and providing insights into the present.

Bury My Heart at Chuck E. Cheese’s by Tiffany Midge, $23
Humor categories in publishing are packed with books by funny women and humorous sociocultural-political commentary–but no Native women. There are presumably more important concerns in Indian Country. More important than humor? Among the Diné/Navajo, a ceremony is held in honor of a baby’s first laugh. While the context is different, it nonetheless reminds us that laughter is precious, even sacred.

Bury My Heart at Chuck E. Cheese’s is a powerful and compelling collection of Tiffany Midge’s musings on life, politics, and identity as a Native woman in America. Artfully blending sly humor, social commentary, and meditations on love and loss, Midge weaves short, stand-alone musings into a memoir that stares down colonialism while chastising hipsters for abusing pumpkin spice. She explains why she does not like pussy hats, mercilessly dismantles pretendians, and confesses her own struggles with white-bread privilege. Employing humor as an act of resistance, these slices of life and matchless takes on urban-Indigenous identity disrupt the colonial narrative and provide commentary on popular culture, media, feminism, and the complications of identity, race, and politics.

Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong, $24
Poet and essayist Cathy Park Hong fearlessly and provocatively blends memoir, cultural criticism, and history to expose fresh truths about racialized consciousness in America. Part memoir and part cultural criticism, this collection is vulnerable, humorous, and provocative–and its relentless and riveting pursuit of vital questions around family and friendship, art and politics, identity and individuality, will change the way you think about our world.

Binding these essays together is Hong’s theory of “minor feelings.” As the daughter of Korean immigrants, Cathy Park Hong grew up steeped in shame, suspicion, and melancholy. She would later understand that these “minor feelings” occur when American optimism contradicts your own reality–when you believe the lies you’re told about your own racial identity. Minor feelings are not small, they’re dissonant–and in their tension Hong finds the key to the questions that haunt her.

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From all of us at Magers & Quinn, have a safe and happy Thanksgiving weekend!