Friday, December 28, 2012

Historic Novels and Genealogy Serendipity Moments

Sometimes we just need a book to read that we can escape in, to explore a different time and place. Historic novels written by authors who go to great lengths to explore information about those times and places are exceptional. One of my favorites is the author David McCullough and especially his book, 1776. The first time reading it I borrowed a copy from someone, as I was not sure if I wanted to purchase a copy. By the time the book was finished there was a deep desire to have my own copy. Fortunately one was found at a local book sale in our community, hardback for $1. This book was about the time and place where our ancestors lived and helped me to understand the experiences that were a part of their lives.

Recently I was looking through a box of books given to me by a good friend and found the book, In The Company of Angels, by David Farland, 2009, 426 pages. It is not the type of book the average genealogist would read. The author is clear that some parts are fictional. At the conclusion of the book there is, Afterward: Brief Biographies of People in this Book (21 individuals) and a section on What's True and What's Not (23 pages). While the book does not provide genealogies, it does provide clues to the people of that time period and experience.

The basic story line is of the Willie Handcart Company of 1856. While none of my ancestors were Mormons, I have worked with many people who did have such ancestors. Some of the handcart companies of that year had a very late start at beginning the trek west. They were ill prepared and had no idea of the challenges that lie ahead. Many of the group would fall out and decide to stay behind and come later. Even more would die along the trek and were buried in shallow graves before the company moved on.

As the journey proceeds the story focuses on Eliza Gould, a non-Mormon traveling with her Mormon husband and their children; Baline Mortensen, a young Danish girl traveling with another family, as her parents sent her and her sister ahead while they saved money to travel later; Captain James Willie, who is the leader of the company and would prove himself worthy of the task. The story is very graphic in parts and leaves the reader in wonder that anyone survived at all.

In some places within the book it becomes obvious where pieces of history are inserted into the story line. The author wants to add a little Mormon culture into the every day life of the trek. Such creative writing does not weaken the overall impact of the story. Though the ending is not what one is hoping for, it does add to the reality of the plight of the pioneers. How many miles could you walk, at first in the blazing heat with little protection from the sun, then through rain storms, and finally in the blizzard conditions into the hills where no hope seems to be waiting their struggling efforts? Most of these conditions were very real and they can be read about in the journals of those who made the treks. You will have to read the book if you want to know how it ends.

In writing our family histories we are often encouraged to include information about the times and places of our ancestors to create an understanding of their lives. In doing so, much caution must be taken to not over embellish or attribute things as actually related to the ancestor. This is what writers of historic novels must do as well, but they have more liberty as they acknowledge that there are creative parts included in the text.

During periods of my life I read collections of books that build from one to another as historical novels.
Some of my favorite historic novels include:
Gone With the Wind
Little House on the Prairie, series
Little Women, series
The Work and the Glory, series

One of the choicest opportunities we have is to share such writings with our children and grandchildren. By selecting such books, we can share with them the time and places that their ancestors lived in. That is one way to introduce the love of genealogy to the next generation of genealogists. Reading to a child plants seeds of understanding and helps them to put their own lives into perspective. Better yet is to share actual stories of their ancestors.

Do you have some historical novels that made an impact on your life and how you view research in family history? Are there stories that your family has enjoyed reading together? Do you experience serendipity moments as you discover the times and places of your ancestors?

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