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I was going to do another chapter of my four guys named Bob series, but I find I need to recheck a couple of dates and won't be able to get to the necessary library until mid-June. Since this is the first long holiday weekend of the summer (or at least one of the first weekends here in Minnesota where I can enjoy my morning coffee on my deck without wearing a parka), I thought it would be fun to once again share reading material of interest to crazy dedicated genealogy/history buffs with a bit of spare time on their hands. And so a new installment of this diary from a little over a year ago: Genealogy by the Book

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The first on my list is a non-fiction book I discovered Tuesday of this week--I'm only 2/3 finished with it, but there is no way I can save this one for later. Curiosity's Cats: Writers on Research This is a collection of essays by writers of various genres -- screenplays, novels, histories -- about how they approach the background research necessary to make stories capture the imaginations of their respective audiences. The common theme in all of the essays is that while online resources have made research much easier, relying on the internet alone is not a good thing.

Depending on what the project is, all of these writers work in ways that most of us here in the Genealogy & Family History Community would recognize: they visit locations to see what their subjects saw, to taste the foods they ate, to experience the local customs, to smell the smells. They talk to elderly people to ask what they remember, what they thought at the time, to find out what new topics arise out of free associations. And sometimes they discover that the topic they thought they were researching was not the story that really needed to be told.

While the essays cover a broad spectrum of historical topics, I found some good tips in how to pin down dates and locations when you think you have nothing to go on, especially when individuals involved used a variety of spellings for their names. There were also some inspirational stories about creating a paper trail that actually disproves "facts" found elsewhere (whether Wikipedia or Great Aunt Martha's DAR papers). (I was tempted more than once to stand up, pump my fist and yell "YES!!," but that behavior is frowned upon by people who ride my bus.)  One of the essays I have yet to read deals with tips for taking your own research and turning it into a book.

An underlying fear tying these essays together is that as people do more and more of their research online, old-fashioned traditional research techniques will be lost, which in turn means that important parts of history may go with it. Some of the concern relates to the fact that, at least right now, it is not feasible to digitize everything, because "everything" is not always in the hands of libraries (whether they are old unpublished manuscripts, or the photos/letters etc. in grandma's attic that end up in estate sales). But you also do not engage the other senses by looking at scans of documents online -- one of the writers points out that you may be able to see a wormhole on a high-quality scan, but chances are that a real bookworm is not going to fall out of your computer screen.

Anyway, I would highly recommend this book (I feel somewhat guilty that I'm reading it on my nook rather than in hard copy, but this may be one I have to own in both formats).

On to some fiction with some good genealogy themes.

The House Girl, by Tara Conklin
A New York law firm is hired to explore the generic feasibility of a reparations claim on behalf descendants of slaves. A young first-year associate is assigned to find the perfect case for a perfect (i.e., photogenic)  and sympathetic claimant. She finds a story which seems on point -- a famous mid-19th century female artist whose paintings may really been done by her house slave. The "artist" died in 1852, and her slave mysteriously disappeared shortly thereafter. Of course, the modern day fans of the "artist" are not anxious to release documents which would prove their heroine a fraud. And since the former slave "disappeared" it would be necessary to prove her descendants were her descendants beyond any doubt.

I thought this was a very interesting read ... sometimes in "genealogy" novels, not much research is actually done. In this book, you see a lot of digging through census records and plantation record books, as well as a bit of art history and theory. There are some good points made about good intentions for bad reasons (lawyers, after all). It's not a perfect book--there is a subplot relating to the young lawyer's strained relationship with her father which kept getting in the way of the main plot. Not that that story wouldn't have been interesting, it just didn't work well within framework of the main plot.

Kindred, by Octavia Butler
This an older book (1979), and since it deals with time travel it is classified as science fiction, but I am going to classify it as genealogy. Because this is my diary.

Dana, a modern African-American woman, is suddenly transported in time back to the early 19th century. She immediately saves the life of a young white child named Rufus. Dana struggles with a lot of pressing questions: Is this real? If so, how did she get here and, more importantly, how does she get back? How does she survive if she can't get back to her own time (not only does she not know how to act like a slave, she doesn't have the day-to-day life skills of the 19th century). Moreover, she realizes Rufus is her ancestor--specifically, a man who raped his slave. Inevitably, Dana is beaten for being herself and the fear this triggers the key to travel back to the 20th century.

And so the pattern begins: Rufus, in danger of losing his life in some accident summons Dana from the future to save his life; Dana remains in the past until she experiences mortal fear of her own...sometimes this takes weeks or months in 19th century terms, but time in the present day does not move at the same pace. It would seem like a dream if were not for the otherwise unexplainable bruises and wounds all over her body. Her husband has a hard time understanding how this could be happening, until he happens to be pulled back with Dana. Since he is white, slave-era "rules" make it impossible for him to be in Dana's company at all times; the result is that he gets left behind when she goes back to the 20th century. When next they meet in Rufus' time, several years have passed.

Time travel aside, it is the relationships (pun intended) that are important in this story. It is hard to explain without giving away all the plot points, but the interaction between Dana and Rufus is complicated and layered. At first, the child Rufus is empathetic, but as time goes on he becomes a truly despicable person. And yet, he is Dana's ancestor and she is compelled to save his life. Very much worth the read.

The Forgotten Garden, by Kate Morton
In 1913, a ship arrives in Australia from England; among the passengers is a four year-old girl--alone and apparently abandoned. She has a suitcase with some clothing and a book of illustrated fairy tales, but cannot tell anyone her name or how she came to be on the boat alone. She is taken in by a local family, who call her Nell and raise her as one of their own. In 2005, Nell dies and leaves everything to her granddaughter Cassandra--"everything" includes the book of fairy tales, Nell's journals (documenting her search for her birth family), and a deteriorating cottage and garden in Cornwall.

There are a lot of genealogical elements here ... places to travel to, diaries to decipher, elderly people to interview, old newspaper accounts and biographies to be read, old maps to be consulted, family secrets aired, and wrong conclusions to be drawn before it all comes clear. Lots of coincidences, too, but sometimes reading just needs to be enjoyed.

So now it's your turn to recommend some of your favorite books, or chit chat about your latest discoveries or breakthroughs, or whatever else you have in mind. This is an open thread and the floor is yours!

Originally posted to Genealogy and Family History Community on Fri May 23, 2014 at 08:45 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (16+ / 0-)

    "If you are sure you understand everything that is going on around you, you are hopelessly confused." Walter Mondale

    by klompendanser on Fri May 23, 2014 at 08:45:17 AM PDT

  •  Good stuff (8+ / 0-)

    Now I have a few more items to add to "the book list," which is quite long.  

    It doesn't discuss genealogy research, per se, but I just read The Randolph Legacy by Eileen Charbonneau, a very interesting story that touches a great deal on the peculiar family dynamics on a Virginia plantation, and among Pennsylvania Quakers, in 1815 or so.

    Similar themes in Michener's Chesapeake, which got me through a long plane ride once.

    William Martin, a Boston guy, has a whole series of novels following families through the centuries. He jumps from present to past, with the "past" creeping ever closer to the present. I loved Back Bay, the first, and Cape Cod. The more recent ones are very interesting but have an annoying tendency toward unsatisfactory endings. 'Nuf said

    “Republicans...think American standard of living is a fine thing--so long as it doesn't spread to all the people... And they admire of Government of the United States so much that they would like to buy it.” Harry S. Truman

    by fenway49 on Fri May 23, 2014 at 09:48:00 AM PDT

    •  the tendency for unsatisfactory endings (6+ / 0-)

      shows up in a lot of modern fictions -- you get swept up in an interesting plot and then the thing just ends. I don't need happily ever after or even a neatly tied bow, but do something with the loose ends (such as acknowledging loose ends indeed exist).

      Chesapeake ... now that brings me back to the type of thing I simply inhaled in my youth! I downloaded Cape Cod a few months ago, but haven't gotten around to reading it yet--waiting for warmer weather to relax with it outside in the sunshine.

      Thanks for the Randolph Legacy tip--I'll check it out.

      "If you are sure you understand everything that is going on around you, you are hopelessly confused." Walter Mondale

      by klompendanser on Fri May 23, 2014 at 10:08:47 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I read Cape Cod (6+ / 0-)

        It's a pretty good yarn. Sort of generic, but still entertaining. More recently, I read (listened to, actually) Edward Rutherford's Paris. Loved that one. Similar approach, with a few different families woven over nearly a millenium. Cape Cod, obviously, covers a shorter span of time.

        Mark Twain: It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.

        by Land of Enchantment on Fri May 23, 2014 at 10:19:18 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  Unsatisfactory endings (5+ / 0-)

        Here's an example from a Martin book: A lot of people, at great risk to life and limb, spend the entire book searching for one particular and very valuable historic object. The book shows you this object's journey from the time it was created, about 400 years ago, to about the 1960s. After much effort the hiding spot is discovered and, lo and behold, it's not there. Instead there's a lecturing note from someone long dead saying it's been re-hidden and we'll all have to wait another 40 years. FIN. All that sound and fury, signifying nothing.

        Sort of like the 6th Harry Potter, but with no sequel to finish the story.

        I just wanted to throw it across the room.

        “Republicans...think American standard of living is a fine thing--so long as it doesn't spread to all the people... And they admire of Government of the United States so much that they would like to buy it.” Harry S. Truman

        by fenway49 on Fri May 23, 2014 at 11:32:33 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  I've been MIA (4+ / 0-)

    for several weeks - with no good reason. Nice to see you :-)

    On the subject of books - I recently got one back that I sent my Dad for Christmas a couple years ago. It was one recommended in one of our open threads. The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan. About the dust bowl. I hadn't read it yet, so now that I have it it's next on my reading list.

  •  Volunteer list? (4+ / 0-)

    Judging by the list in last week's open thread, it looks like next week might still be needing a host. I thought I could do a little quickie on summer plans if no one else has taken it yet. I've got a big trip planned that I am excited about.

    I'll most likely do a follow up in August with a recap of my adventures.

    •  VOLUNTEERS NEEDED!! (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Jim H, edwardssl, Zwenkau, Whitefish

      Speaking of needing a memory jog! Yikes!

      Next week is yours--thank you! Here is the current schedule:

      May 30 - Jim H
      Jun 6 -   open for adoption
      Jun 13 - open for adoption
      Jun 20 - open for adoption
      Jun 27 - klompendanser

      If anyone can take one of these dates, let edwardssl or me know!

      "If you are sure you understand everything that is going on around you, you are hopelessly confused." Walter Mondale

      by klompendanser on Fri May 23, 2014 at 03:33:47 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I'm a time traveller and so can you (5+ / 0-)

    I can vanish for months at a time and reappear at will. I see that I'm not the only one who's been away for a while. Glad to be back and cross path with my friends here.

    Anyhoo, your topic got the old synapses sparking across alternate paths again.

    For sure, get your potato off the couch. Yes, the Internet is your friend. Tip of the iceberg, though. Yes, you can see the US Constitution online, but you can see the real thing in Washington. 'Nuff said.

    Now to the "history" part of GFHC.

    Schools taught history lessons from such sources as "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" for over 100 years. It's poetic, but mostly wrong.

    Washington didn't chop down a cherry tree. He didn't lead the way or stand holding a shiny sword on the brow of a boat to cross the wide-open water of the Delaware in broad daylight.  But this is what I was taught in school.

    The history I've learned through my genealogy addiction in later years changed all that. It's not just personally significant, it's from multiple sources, in context, and often presented by people who shared their personal memories of those events. This is the real thing, not some kind of biased rewritten history. This is the history that has been burned into my mind.

    So now I find it a lot easier to spot the errors and bullshit.

    Here's a harmless example.

    Rachel Maddow began a segment the other day with a little bit about the Salem Witch Trials. She said that witches were hanged, burned at the stake, and drowned. Any genealogist who has ever touched on this subject should know better. This is just a nit.

    I get angry when the bullshit is claimed to be accurate but isn't, especially when it's about a very important topic. In this case, the 2nd Amendment (again).

    A distortion based on a distortion...

    Michael Waldman has been seen on the tee-vee machine recently for a book tour about his new book, :The Second Amendment - a biography". It's supposed to be about how the NRA has perverted and distorted the meaning of the 2nd. One would expect this book to expose the NRA bullshit with well-researched historical facts. As soon as he spoke, I yelled at the tee-vee. He was spewing more NRA bullshit. Flim flam. Fraud.

    I've read the original documents and transcripts and town histories that tell a completely different reality than whatever crap source he read. Had I not read anything, it would be easy to believe the bullshit. But I now know better.

    So Waldman starts talking about militias... I didn't listen to much beyond his first few statements...

    1) He said that the militias were created because everyone was afraid that their new federal government could actually be just another tyranny that would be worse than the tyranny of King George.

    Uh, no Michael. That's the NRA-written fantasy version of history again. Do a Google search. That's pretty much all that you get.

    The actual history was recorded at the time and found in the original documents, debates, newspapers, town records, state records, military records, court records, etc. You won't find on whit of concern about a fear of tyranny from the new government that was formed to eliminate actual tyranny.

    Militias were formed over 150 years before the American Revolution. SO they weren't formed as a result of the new constitution or the Bill of Rights. Idiot.

    They formed the local and regional police force, essentially,  and served to guard settlers from Indian attacks, fight fires, chase thieves and robbers, etc. .

    The new government was concerned about the possibility of a military coup against the President and the new elected leaders, not a tyranny perpetrated on themselves by themselves. This is as crazy as the Sarah Who?™ version of history. The version with the clangin' bells and shootin' in the air and takin' yer gunns aweigh, also, too.

    So they decided that there would be no standing army because of the risk of a coup. Instead, they established a hierarchy where the President had the ability to activate whatever militias he needed to protect the new country from enemies, foreign or domestic. The President would be the commander in chief of all militias he called up. And the 2nd amendment made it a right to maintain a permanent militia.

    The experience of Shays' Rebellion was instrumental in the decision to structure national defense using militias that would report to the President when needed. Note that the Continental Army was essentially dissolved after the American Revolution. No standing army....  

    2) Waldman said that all men were required to join the militia.

    Bullshit, Michael.

    Never in the 150 years of militias was it a requirement. Individuals were selected to have the honor of serving in the militias. Only men deemed trustworthy and responsible were eligible (yeah, property owners only). Officers were appointed by the town selectmen (city council) or elected by the militia members themselves. The militia held monthly training and parades (marches), usually in the town square. The training was was known as "regulation", thus a well regulated militia meant just that: a well-trained militia. The rules and procedures were originally based on European military regulations and implemented across the 13 colonies as appropriate.

    True, all men were required to be listed on a roster when the American Revolution started, but this was more like registering for the draft.  

    The militias and the Continental Army are two distinctly separate organizations. One might be a Captain in the local militia but a Private in the Continental Army.

    No, Michael. The militias never, ever, required all men to serve. No. Just No.

    3) Waldman confidently stated that everyone was  required to purchase a gun and keep it in their home.

    Bullshit again, Michael.

    Most towns had armories or designated places where arms belonging to the militia were stored. Rural folks didn't always keep them in their homes. There were places at crossroads or mills that served the purpose for several militia-farmers.

    Every town had a powder house. Nobody kept large amounts of powder anywhere near their homes and outbuildings. Again, mills and transportation hubs were often where powder was stored.

    If you were selected to join the militia, you were required to purchase an appropriate gun. Not just any firearm. Most members had the resources to purchase a gun, Those who didn't often got funds because the town leaders would vote to provide funds. Or some  wealthy members passed the hat.

    Quite a few folks permanently had their guns taken away. The militia officers, the town leaders (by vote), a doctor (the insane, feebleminded, infirm, crippled, deaf/dumb/blind [their terminology]), and others could prohibit certain people from access to guns.

    Vermont had some interesting rules. The loud or obnoxious could not have guns. I'm particularly fond of that idea.  Habitual drunkards and prisoners were on the list. Generally, there were no restrictions based on race, gender, or anything not specifically listed. Children had to be supervised. Slaves and indentured servants, as few as there were in Vermont, were trusted with guns. else.

    -------------

    I'm not going to bother to read Waldman's new book.

    Like I said. The old brain synapses got fired up.

    Glad to be back from another time.

    Thanks, klompy. Good one.

    "Never wrestle with a pig: you get dirty and the pig enjoys it"

    by GrumpyOldGeek on Fri May 23, 2014 at 07:35:37 PM PDT

  •  Sorry, having much trouble (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Zwenkau, klompendanser, Whitefish

    keeping a connection.  t enjoyed the diary and have to say I just ordered a book on German genealogy that I'm pretty excited about. It gives much information on where I can go/write to get the source material I'm missing.

    Hope this posts this time!

  •  Thank you (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    klompendanser, edwardssl, Jim H

    for the mention of Curiosity's Cats. I wrote one of the essays, which was an enjoyable vacation from my usual line of work. And, mea culpa, I committed an error in an identification of a minor character of my story, one which many people will spot. It crept in during the revision stage. (I am not going to mention the error so that I can challenge you all to find it!) The worst errors occur when you are correcting other errors. My only explanation is that I knew better and that no one is perfect. Last fall I really enjoyed reading Stephen King's book 11/22/63 and spotted an error which anyone who has done genealogical research will spot: He said that his character while in a town in New York in 1958 went to the library and tried to look at the 1950 census to find out more about someone living in the town. He was told that he would have to go to the courthouse to look at it. Wrong! No one anywhere would have been able to look at the personal information in the 1950 census in 1958 because the personal information part of the U.S. census is not available until 72 years after the date of any census. Despite that little problem I really liked the book. I am a sucker for time travel books. Maybe that is why I like doing historical research.

    Coregonus clupeaformis/ adikameg/ the caribou of the sea

    by Whitefish on Sat May 24, 2014 at 08:53:23 AM PDT

    •  oh, excellent! (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      edwardssl, Jim H

      Still have a way to go in Curiositys Cats, but am loving it...I have all kinds of electonic sticky notes of things to revisit and explore further...I keep an eye out for the "error" ( but considering how many goofs I make in a day I probably won't be calling you on it :) !)

      If ever I get to time travel, I would go to visit county clerks and explain the concept of outcards when putting using gggg-uncle George's will to wrap up his parents' probate, etc.

      Thanks so much for stopping by!

      "If you are sure you understand everything that is going on around you, you are hopelessly confused." Walter Mondale

      by klompendanser on Sat May 24, 2014 at 09:43:59 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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