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History vs. Genealogy vs. Historical Fiction

“History and genealogy…are two radically divergent views on the past.  The first says ‘This matters.’ The second says, ‘This matters to me.'”  John Sedgwick in the New York Times

History, Genealogy, Historical Fiction

Historians such as John Sedgwick tend to scoff at genealogists’ efforts to track down their ancestors by pouring over demographic records and old newspapers, using on-line services to trace family connections or spitting into DNA collection tubes. Historians have a “so what?” attitude. Until, as Sedgwick reports, he learned that an ancestor of his, was involved in a historic event for the Cherokee Nation. Then the civil war which erupted over the issue of the Cherokee Nation’s removal to the Oklahoma Territory became not just something that mattered historically but something that mattered to Sedgwick personally.

Writers of historical fiction see an obligation to present their stories in an accurate historical context and frequently do extensive research to learn the accurate details, scenes and key events of the historical time. Having done this extensive research, writers become engaged and committed to the historical context of their story. This sometimes tempts them to provide several pages of historical description and background which fascinates them but which tends to bore the reader. Historical fiction writers, then must continuously ask the question, “Does this background matter to my story?”

Here is an example of a slice of history that mattered in the pioneer West, mattered in the search for information about my grandfather and mattered in the development of my story.

Mattered to Me

As a lover of history, an amateur genealogist and a writer of historical fiction, I find these questions of “what matters” intriguing. In my genealogical research looking for information about my shadowy grandfather, I was searching for potential reasons why he might have abandoned his wife and family and where he might have gone. I hoped that information might give me clues about where I might find him in the public records. What mattered to me was finding places to look in public records in Texas; information about the “overland outfit” he worked for in the Dodge City area and how he might have ended up in Wyoming to marry my grandmother.

Historic scene, hand loom

Mattered to the Story

Unfortunately, I did not find my grandfather in the public records during a period of thirteen years. I could not find information to help me understand his disappearance nor how he got to Wyoming to marry my grandmother. I decided to write the story as fiction. I would need to creatively develop the story of my grandfather’s disappearance. I had a hypothesis that he joined a cattle drive and headed north from Texas based on clues in a deposition in which he said he “worked cattle.” Using that hypothesis, I researched the social and economic events of the longhorn cattle drives from Texas to Dodge City. What mattered to my story then were the perils of the cattle drive and the lawless character of Dodge City . Yet neither of these events had mattered to me in my genealogy research.

Mattered in History

In the history of the West, the cowboys leading cattle drives north and the lawlessness of Dodge City were infamous for a short period of time. They mattered in the history of settling the West, but they were soon diminished by the impact of the settlers claiming free land, often called “nesters,” cattle quarantines and the civilizing influence of families and women. These events historically had a much larger impact in the settlement of the west and really didn’t matter to me in my genealogy pursuit or in writing my historical novel.

Sedgwick says that as a historian he couldn’t take the story past the facts but as a genealogist he could imagine the feelings and physical encounters expressed in the conflict he describes. In my own experience, both the events of history and the documented facts of births, deaths and census rolls of genealogy are fact based. I found the facts are without the emotions of fear, sadness, frustration and joy or the insight from learning the motivation for abandoning a wife and family. Imagining emotions, motivations and creating dialogue makes a story more engaging to the reader looking for opportunities to understand history and identify with characters who made a difference in their time. It has been both a way to learn more history and to identify and understand my ancestors.

Exploring an example from my novel, Sarah’s Secret shows how history, genealogy and historical fiction are intertwined. I needed to use ideas from all three.

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13 Nov
2017

Thanksgiving, The American Holiday

Autumn Bouquet to Celebrate Thanksigving, Bev Scott

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Did you know that Thanksgiving did not become a permanent official national holiday until 1941 when Congress established the fourth Thursday of the month of November as Thanksgiving Day?

Today, Thanksgiving is a most American holiday tradition in which we gather with friends and family to share a sumptuous feast and express our gratitude.   Many of us assume Thanksgiving in North America began with the Pilgrims story of Thanksgiving.  The roots of our Thanksgiving can be traced back to the ancient traditions of celebrating the bounty of the harvest.  I also discovered there were earlier ceremonies by other British colonists and Spanish explorers in North America before the Plymouth celebration of 1621.  Although Thanksgiving in the colonies became a regular event by the middle of the 17th century, the first national Thanksgiving was proclaimed in 1777 by the Continental Congress.  The early Presidents continued to proclaim a national day of Thanksgiving but it was not an official holiday.  In fact, by the middle of the 19th century Thanksgiving was limited to individual state observances and had evolved from the religious and civil day of commemoration and giving thanks to a family holiday of feasting.  President Lincoln was convinced to declare a national holiday in 1863 in an effort to unite the war-torn country.  Lincoln’s successors proclaimed a Thanksgiving Day each year until it became a permanent official holiday in 1941.

In researching my family history and writing the story of “Sarah’s Secret”, I often found myself thinking about life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries compared to my life today.  Since I did not inherit any family traditions of Thanksgiving, my curiosity led me to explore some of the history of one of this favorite of American holiday which combines the ancient traditions of harvest festivals and the religious observances of the Puritans grateful and giving thanks for their survival after a year of sickness and scarcity.

Without family stories or traditions, I used my imagination about how my grandparents might have celebrated Thanksgiving Day.  Since it was not a firm national holiday and observed differently by state, my grandparents might not have even celebrated Thanksgiving as struggling homesteaders.  Certainly, after my grandfather died leaving my grandmother in dire and impoverished circumstances, her ability to provide an extravagant feast would have been very limited.  Yet, the tradition of acknowledging God’s blessings, giving thanks and expressing gratitude would have been important to my grandmother, who had a strong Christian faith.  I imagine that when the President of the United States did declare a day of Thanksgiving, which may or may not have been in November, that she probably commemorated the day.  She may have cooked something special, maybe a wild game or fowl caught by my grandfather or her oldest son.  I am convinced that she would ensure that she and her family offered a prayer of thanksgiving for the blessings in their lives.  Since her birthday was November 24th and often fell on Thanksgiving, I also imagine that she probably ignored or discounted any celebration of her November birthday as too frivolous and extravagant.

Greetings! And Happy Thanksgiving, from Bev Scott

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This Thanksgiving, I am grateful not only for my comfortable twenty-first century life, but I am also grateful for the opportunity to write about the strong courageous woman who was my grandmother.  Although her birthday this year falls on the day after Thanksgiving, I will honor her especially for her inspiration.  I have so much respect for this proud woman who was left a widow and raised her five children while she struggled with illness and poverty.

Do you have inherited family traditions on Thanksgiving?  What do you imagine your grandparents or great grandparents did to celebrate a day of family feasting or to express gratitude and give thanks in their faith on Thanksgiving Day?

(Previous versions of this article have been published in “The Writing Life” in 2015 and 2016.)

 

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8 Jun
2016
Posted in: Book Reviews
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Book Review: “The Girl from Krakow” by Alex Rosenberg

The Girl From Krakow: Book Review

Reviewed by Bev Scott

This is a story of passion, maternal instincts and subterfuge during World War II in Poland. Rita, a young Jewish woman searching for a more exciting life is studying law in Krakow when she meets Urs in his last year of medical school. Despite her initial resistance, she marries him but finds his stiff and routine approach to sex unsatisfying to her. She meets and launches what later becomes a passionate affair with Dr. Tadeusz, the second main protagonist, who is deceptive with a tendency to delude and fabricate stories to meet his own needs. When Rita’s husband discovers their weekly trysts under the guise of infertility treatments, he attempts suicide. The affair is ended and Rita reconciles with Urs to maintain appearances. When she discovers she is indeed pregnant, he is relieved as he counts back and realizes the child is his.

Germany has put an end to Poland, controlling the east while the Soviets have marched into the west. Urs now working for a Soviet government clinic is soon ordered to leave for conscription in the Soviet army. Rita and her young son are left behind. She rents out a room to Eric, a young man she finds interesting and attractive . A work permit at a factory allows him connections to help get Rita’s son sent with a Polish resistance courier to deliver her son to her parents. Unfortunately, when she learns that the courier is arrested by the Nazis, it is doubtful her son was delivered to her parents. But she never gives up believing that he somehow survives. Eric’s connection allows her to obtain false identity papers and escape to Warsaw to begin looking for her son. With German looks, ability to speak flawless German as well as Polish and her daring courage, she takes many chances in her search for him. Meanwhile, we learn that the disingenuous Dr. Romero with his Spanish disguise is hiding out in Moscow, taking risks of his own.

The well-researched historical context of this book offers the opportunity for an engaging story about the personal pain and emotional challenges brought by the brutality of the Nazi invasion of Poland. However, some aspects of the book are confusing or distracting such as the story flipping between the setting for two main protagonists Rita and Dr. Romero. I was also troubled by a lack of character development for Dr. Romero and I questioned the believability of Rita’s character especially her risky sexual behavior. Despite these concerns, I enjoyed the book and found the story engrossing.

Author:  Alex Rosenberg

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