I’m reading Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought, which won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 2008. It’s a thick book, about the depth of a Los Angeles phone directory, and chock-full of interesting information about, as the subtitle states, “The Transformation of America, 1815-1848.” I’m loving this book, though I have to admit it’s slow going because I’m underlining a bunch and taking extensive notes.
The time period covered in the book is the era I’m writing about in my Parrott family history, so I’m “all ears.” I figure the stuff Howe discusses concerned “my people,” and likely occupied their thoughts and influenced many of the decisions they made during their lives.
For example, on page 30 Howe writes about the Tambora volcano on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa that erupted in April 1815. Have you ever heard of it? I hadn’t. Turns out, it was the largest volcano eruption in recorded history and the tsunami it generated killed ten thousand people. If you had ancestors who lived on America’s East Coast at that time, they were affected by that event, for it caused weather disturbances so severe it snowed in New England in June and caused widespread crop failures along the whole Eastern Seaboard that led to food shortages in North America. I’d heard about “the year without a summer,” but I never knew its cause.
My Parrotts were living in Ohio at that time, having migrated there from Tennessee only the year before , so they were still trying to establish their farms in new territory when they were hit by that weather and agricultural calamity. I wonder how they fared. Did it affect their health, their family life? How did they cope? These are the kinds of questions we need to ask when we’re writing family histories. How were our ancestors’ lives affected by the world around them?
The same thing applies to our own personal histories. Thinking about the worldwide repercussions from that volcano, I asked my students to analyze how 9-11 has changed their lives. We had a lively discussion, where people mentioned everything from airport security hassles, to political party changes, to U.S. involvement in two wars. I wrote their responses on the chalkboard and I think we were all amazed at the list. We’ll be feeling and living with the affects of that cataclysmic event for the rest of our lives, and I remember thinking about that probability the day it all happened.
I asked my students to write a story about their own experience with the 9-11 tragedy, because I’m sure their descendants will want to know what it was like to live through that event—just like I’d like to know how my Parrotts fared in the year without a summer.
It’s important that our life stories or family histories take into account the larger world and how events beyond the walls of our homes influenced our lives. Because they did. Because they do.