Monday, September 22, 2014

What Shapes Our Lives as Genealogists?

Laura Ingalls Wilder Book Collection,
photo by Midge Frazel, 5 Sept 2014


What Shapes Our Lives as Genealogists?


As my readers know, I have been interested in family history since I was about eight years old when my grandmother showed me her husband's family Bible and the photos of his grandparents.  (Who knew grandparents had grandparents?)

That's the day I became a genealogist.

The Bible and those photos belong to me now and they are the starting point for my maternal genealogy research. 

Many family historians and genealogists talk freely about how history and literature have shaped and influenced their research and their interest in genealogy as a whole.

As the author of a book for educators about digital storytelling, I investigated many ways to blend all disciplines and technology together for students and teachers to use storytelling to meet curriculum goals and benchmarks for learning. It is the book that bridged the gap between my life as an educator and my life as a professional genealogist.

Historical fiction should contain facts that can be proved but the story line can be altered to include places, people and events that are not entirely accurate. Historical fiction must be written to be interesting enough to appeal to the audience. Just dates and places do not make history come alive.

Your own family history, while fascinating to you and your family, might be boring to others. The wider the audience, the harder the author must work to please the reader. Today, we have self publishing options that change how the publishing process works between the author and the reading audience. There is no "editor". It is neither good nor bad. It is just a different way of publishing.

Your second or third grade teacher must have made you aware of the difference between fiction and non fiction, which is a life-long lesson no matter how the story is told. 

The media (print, blog, newspapers, books, Web sites, electronic readers and movies) are just containers to hold stories. It is often hard to tell where the non-fiction ends and the fiction begins. You must be a critical evaluator of information in this media-controlled life.

About the time I became aware of family history, I was involved in reading the juvenile historical fiction of Laura Ingalls Wilder. As an early reader, I was asked by the teacher not to bring books from home to school. I suspect that the teacher did not want attention brought to the fact that I was in the "highest book group" in my grade. You had to fit neatly into groups back then as the school day plan was so rigid.

Mrs. Wilder's works of fiction seemed so real that many readers assumed that all of it could be proved as fact. I was quite shocked (as a young adult) to discover that the character, Mr. Edwards, did not exist at all, and to learn he was a composite of people met along the way to help explain how some events occurred in the timeline of that partially fictionalized story.

Realizing this, the "adult me" became more interested in what the real story was and why the books remain popular and have never been out of print. Authors can only wish for such continued success and royalties.

The late Garth Williams sketches are so engaging that it is easy to forget that the people in the books didn't really look like that. Would I have worried about that as a young child? Probably not.

Today, children can see actual photographs of the characters in the books, see and visit the preserved or memorialized homes of the family members, follow a geographical timeline, admire the family objects in special museums and see the gravestones. This is the real history for children.

Does this confuse children even more to see these non-fictional tangible things? I think not. We don't give children enough credit and it is the adults who are unbending in their understanding of fiction and non-fiction. Whoever wrote these books and how factually accurate they are does not deter us from gaining the understanding that life was harder in the past and those stories can help us all understand lives beyond our own. For example, "Where were your ancestors living in the 1860s and 1870s?"

Everyone wishes that their family history and the stories around the facts were as riveting as the ones in these books. We hunger for the stories of our ancestors and they shape our work as genealogists. 

3 comments:

Carmen Johnson said...

I remember reading the Wilder books when I was quite young as well. I think they had gotten over the kids who were above their grade level in reading. My favorite books were my mothers so the books were pretty old. They were Heidi, Heidi Grows Up and Heidi's Children. I was always fascinated with history and loved listening to those stories. However, I think that the first time I connected family history and its impact on its members was when I read "The Adam's Chronicles" in 7th grade. I think I wanted to find out what my own family heritage was at that point. I wish I would have asked more questions when I was that young.

Dana Leeds said...

I loved Laura Ingalls Wilder's books when I was young. Sadly, my daughter never enjoyed them even though she loved books.

I nominated you for the "One Lovely Blog" award! I really enjoy reading your posts!

Dr. Bill (William L.) Smith said...

I hope each of your readers has a chance to take this course. You can sign up at any time during the 8 weeks. This will be week 2. What fun!
http://www.examiner.com/article/free-laura-ingalls-wilder-class-started-this-week-at-msu-mooc