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
Genealogy & Family History Community
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!