I’m always looking for examples of creative ways people write family histories that breathe life into ancestors long gone. I have posted a list of books I particularly admire in the Toolbox section of my website, www.MemoirMentor.com. I recently finished another family history I’d like to recommend to you, one that will surely go on the top of my list. It’s The Journey Takers, written by Leslie Albrecht Huber. I am impressed with the way Huber structured her family history and told her story, and I’ve picked up some ideas I’d like to implement in the Parrett family history I’m writing.
Huber’s narrative traces the lives of several families on her paternal line who made the brave choice to forsake their homeland–in this case, Germany, England, and Sweden–to immigrate to America. Hence, the title, The Journey Takers. This is an interesting focus, one that provides a unified theme to the varied individual life stories. My husband and I have frequently discussed writing a joint family history about all of our immigrant ancestors who came to America. Huber has beat us to the punch and provided a superb template to boot.
The Journey Takers is also about Huber’s own journey, actually several journeys, including research trips to her ancestral homelands to comb through archives, talk to the locals, and walk the land her people called their own. While researching for this book–a ten-year project, she tells us–her own young family is also in a state of flux. Educational pursuits and job responsibilities require the Hubers to move to several different states and spend a year in Spain. She recounts these different experiences in an engaging way, candidly telling us about her difficult pregnancies, parenting adjustments, and frustrations about being sidetracked from her research and writing goals. Her children are her top priority, she tells us, but she’s also ambitious and driven to complete this book. The worst thing she can imagine, she thinks, would be to lead an ordinary life. A woman so driven finds ways to fulfill her goals. I had to smile at some of her solutions: bouncing a restless toddler on her hip at the Family History Library, juggling babysitters, toting her mother and pre-school-age children with her as she navigates the Oregon Trail. I felt like I knew this woman and could relate to her conflicted desires.
The sections about Huber are told in first person, of course, and are also written in the present tense, which makes them feel both personal and immediate. The ancestral narratives are told in the past tense and third person. Huber has done her reseach, in both primary documents and social history, which she combines in an interesting, seamless way, documented inobtrusively with endnotes that appear at the back of the book.
Here’s the best part, however. The book is full of scenes…and you know how I like scenes. The book is worth reading just to convince yourself that scenes infuse lifeless names and facts with flesh and bones–and a heart and soul. Huber does a fine job with this creative form of writing, inbuing her scenes with engaging detail, dialogue, and emotion.
I love the slick way she transitions into scenes. For example, after describing horrible conditions on board an 1861 immigrant ship bound for America from Sweden, she writes the following:
When I think of Karsti’s voyage across the ocean, one image stands out in my mind.
Karsti hurries down the steps leading below deck in the semi-dark as the massive, angry sea tossed the ship back and forth. Behind her, she hears the hatch door slam shut with a resounding thud. She reminds herself that this is to protect the passengers–to keep the water out, not to make them miserable. A few lanterns give off a dim glow, the only light available. She searches for something to hold on to in order to steady herself against the relentless motion of the ship. Around her, she sees other passengers gripping their beds, their faces white.
The scene carries on in this vein for several more paragraphs, helping us visualize what Huber clearly visualized from her reseach about that voyage. It’s all done to good effect. I include below several more examples showing how Huber transitions from narriative to scene.
Sometimes I imagine Karsti at Castle Gardens. She stacks her luggage, which represents all her possessions, around her. She rolls up a piece of clothing and places it under her head….
In my mind, I can see James stopping to knock on a door. A few seconds later, Elizabeth answers. Her long, brown hair is pulled up neatly on top of her head….
I picture their wagon bumping over the parched ground as John guides the horses along the dirt trail lined with sagebrush.
The book contains many other fine examples of this type. We can learn a lot by reading books similar to the ones we want to write. This is no ordinary book, written by no ordinary writer and genealogist. Leslie Albrecht Huber has nothing to worry about.
Leslie Ann Huber, The Journey Takers, Foundation Books, 2010, 332 pages, 6 x 9, with appendix and bibliography. ISBN 2010924144, $19.95 (paperback). The book can be ordered through Leslie’s website, http://www.thejourneytakers.com/.
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