“Family stories fill gaps in my sense of history,” writes David Mas Masumoto in Secret Harvests: A Hidden Story of Separation and the Resilience of a Family Farm (Red Hen Press, April 18), the story of a Japanese American farm family in California, beautifully illustrated with linoleum block prints by Patricia Wakida. The author knows that his immigrant story—first- and second-generation farmworkers rounded up and sent to internment camps during World War II; an uncle who served in the all–Japanese American 442nd U.S. Army Infantry Regiment—complicates the traditional narrative of American history.

Family histories, too, have gaps: At the beginning of Secret Harvests, Masumoto learns that he has an elderly aunt, Shizuko, with an intellectual disability; she was sent to live at a state institution in 1942 and largely forgotten; Masumoto believed she was long dead until receiving a call from a funeral home trying to track down Shizuko’s relatives as she languished in hospice care. Was the family ashamed of Shizuko? Unable to care for her? Masumoto grapples with the meaning of this family secret.

Family secrets and the toll of American racism are also at the heart of Ava Chin’s Mott Street: A Chinese American Family’s Story of Exclusion and Homecoming (Penguin Press, April 25). Like Masumoto, Chin was in the dark about a large portion of her family history—specifically the story of her father, Stanley Chin, who left her mother when Ava was just a child. (“He used your mother, then threw her away” is how her maternal grandmother puts it.) As an adult, Chin finally meets her father and begins to fill in the gaps in what she knows. Everything connects back to one building at 37 Mott St. in New York’s Chinatown, where both sides of her extended clan lived in the early 20th century.

Drawing on her skills as a journalist and researcher (she’s written for the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and other publications), Chin follows the story back to villages in China that sent their sons and daughters to seek fortunes in the United States. Here, those immigrants worked on the railroads, opened laundries, ran eateries, and joined the business associations known as tongs. Casting a long shadow over their American experience, however, was the Chinese Exclusion Act, which restricted immigration from China and blocked Chinese immigrants from citizenship from 1882 to 1943.

“It is a general rule of thumb among researchers and historians alike, that it is the written record that is the gold standard, and the family stories are long on twisted falsehoods, embellishment, and tall tales,” Chin writes. “But when you’re Chinese in America, with roots that stretch back to the Exclusion era, it is the historical record that is a fabulist fabrication, and the oral stories, passed down from generation to generation, like rare, evolving heirlooms, that ultimately hold the keys to the truth.” Books like Secret Harvests and Mott Street begin to show us a fuller, more troubling, but also richer picture of American history.

Tom Beer is the editor-in-chief