Why Narratives? (Part Two)

In our previous post, I introduced the concept of narrative genealogy: branching out from the names, dates, and places of typical family trees and describing the adventures and challenges of your family’s unique history. Writing genealogy in a narrative form can help overcome some of the obstacles that new researchers face, allowing them to push forward and record stories for the benefit of generations to come.

For those who think they have nothing in their lives worth writing about, I humbly suggest that you are mistaken. That which seems to us mundane may be of sparkling interest to someone four generations from now. Consider how genealogists pore over lists of personal property in old wills: what would you think of recording an inventory of your kitchen cupboards or garage? Surely nobody will care that you have two lawnmowers (one in need of a new wheel), but what if a hundred years from now, lawnmowers are considered signs of great wealth? You can’t know now what will be valued in the future. If we self-censor our stories based on false humility or short-sightedness, we may be robbing the generations to come of a window into their past.

Old Garage by Les Chatfield (CC BY 2.0)

An email I received some time ago advertising Donald Miller’s Storyline conference included this line: “The least meaningful life any of us could live is a one in which we play a dishonest role.” If we are true to ourselves and our family’s story, we need not worry about being unremarkable; to someone, perhaps decades from now, we will be worthy of note.

Conquering Charlemagne 

Narratives can also help to combat what I refer to as “Charlemagne Syndrome”: the relentless drive to push one’s family tree back into the misty centuries long past, often at the expense of veracity. This mindset leads many well-meaning family historians astray, resulting in impressively large (though likely lopsided!) family trees utterly devoid of flowers or fruit. The Internet has both helped and hindered in this regard; remember, just because you find it online, don’t assume it’s true. And if there are no supporting citations or stories, simply a name and date, be doubly skeptical!

For some genealogists, an unbroken chain of names reaching back to some significant event or notable figure in history is the endgame of genealogy. I recognize (somewhat enviously) that there are genealogists with long, beautifully-documented lineages stretching well into the Middle Ages. But of what good are lists of names without stories or context to surround them?

I myself have a handful of forefathers associated with the American Revolution; lineage records compiled a few generations ago provide me with a well-documented list of names and dates, but not much else beyond the barest details of my ancestors’ service. Given that I do have these documented names, though, my task is now to place the intervening generations into context and write the stories of my truly American family.

Spinning a Good Yarn 

Narratives engage the reader in a way that pedigrees just can’t. It’s like the difference between a novel and a dictionary – a story-based genealogy is more than just a reference document. A few examples:
  • You may have the birth date for an ancestor of yours, but when you realize that she was born just after her parents arrived in the country, suddenly you have more of a story to discover. What was it like for new immigrants to care for an infant in a new land? Were there fellow countrymen around to rely on, or were they on their own? As the child grew, how much of the old language and traditions influenced her childhood? 
Family by Quinn Dombrowski (CC BY-SA 2.0)

  • In one branch of the family, multiple children have death dates within a few weeks of each other. Was there some type of accident or an epidemic of disease? It could have been significant enough within their community to make the newspaper; a little digging may open up a bigger story than you expected. 
  • The census record for your spouse’s great-grandmother’s household lists two children with the same birth year but different months. Is this an error, evidence of an adoption, or was there a cousin visiting the family at the time of the census? Any way it turns out, there’s probably a story to be written beyond just listing the dates of birth. 
Start with the stories you know in your immediate family and work outward, building a rich tapestry of family narratives that will result in a family tree about which your grandchildren will want to learn.

In addition to being more readable, narratives allow you to comment on the hours of research that you’ve done, rather than just passing along a set of facts and hoping that someone else down the line will draw the same conclusions that you have. Any genealogical report should include this analysis; unfortunately, many people are simply satisfied to compile poorly-documented pedigree charts and consider their work to be done. Narratives allow you to explain your research and reasoning, round out the stories of your ancestors, and place them in a historical context. With narratives, your ancestors take their place in the larger history of the nation and world, and by extension you connect yourself to communities you never realized were of personal significance.

Now it’s your turn. Share your opinions below regarding a narrative focus to genealogy. 
  • Do you have any creative ideas for how to present narratives? (Hint - they don’t necessarily have to be compiled in a bound book!) 
  • Is there a particular person in your family tree whose story (or lack thereof) particularly intrigues you?

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