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Storytelling

My brother Barry says “The instant  after we live an event, we start re-writing it in our minds, and we keep re-writing it until it suits us, until it feels right.  We rewrite it to make us look funnier, or smarter, or more dramatic.  We have very little awareness that this is what is happening.  Everybody does it.

My purpose (relating this to family history) in “making books” is making our forebears accessible to our younger generation.  I have to recognize that it is very difficult even in the best circumstances to get at a dependable picture of  the lives of these forebears.  Earlier I wrote of a great-aunt, a Niebuhr descendant, of whom I had five photographs, a few letters and a quantity of the memories people had of her.  Then there was my grand-father-in-law, of whom there are records, many of them official ones, but so contradictory as to date and name and place that the truth of the matter is elusive.  There have been many other sources of material for others of my family in my history-writing efforts, and I find it is possible to rank the probability of their revealing the character of the subject in the following ways:

It is  my observation from examining a great many family materials dated over the course of two centuries that  of all sources, journals have the best shot at conveying the mind of the writer.  Letters (when both sides of  a correspondence are available) may come close, but there seems always to be a part of the writer’s mental processes held back, edited, monitored.  With a journal such as my great-grandfather’s, both the details of his daily life and his thoughts about the details and the wider physical and mental landscape he inhabited are available.  It becomes possible, through transcribing and footnoting his journals, to develop a sense of the realities of his life and the lives of the people of his time and station in life.

And how odd it is, the significance a century and a half ago, of that “station in life.”  Class structure, while not as rigid as in earlier centuries, was nevertheless still rigid.  Through education and striving, working class children could break into the middle class.  Odd too that through Britain’s possession of a vast and mostly empty land, it called to its citizens to populate that land.  And so it was that many of the children of Henry Thomas Wake became owners of land for ten dollars and three years’ labour, through the Canadian Homestead Act, and found themselves in a nominally classless society.