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    Sunday
    Sep122010

    What's Your Book's Theme?

    One of the most common obstacles faced by family historians is how to organize the mountain of research they have accumulated. The first advice they are likely to be given is to decide on the scope of their book. Should they choose a single line in their ancestry and trace its story. Or would it be better to start with a specific ancestor and look at all of that person’s descendants.

    Once the decision about scope is made a second question arises. What common underlying experiences or ideas, relationships or connections run through the lives of the ancestors you will write about?  In short, what is the theme that ties together your family’s history? Beyond the unique aspects of that experience how have the events experienced by the people you describe been part of the universal human experience?

    Here are some examples of themes in different kinds of family stories:

    • Wisdom, values or lessons and passed from generation to generation: That was the case for books written by both major presidential candidates in the last election. Barrack Obama in Dreams From My Father and John McCain in Faith of My Fathers.


    • Racial, ethnic or cultural identity:  It’s an experience Booker T. Washington captured in his autobiography Up From Slavery where he observed “my race must continue passing through the severe American crucible.” Frank McCourt was able to turn his Irish-American experience into a Pulitzer Prize winner with Angela’s Ashes. But you can give that experience an interesting twist as Jane Ziegelman did in 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement in which she uses the ethnic foods of the Germans, Irish, Italians and East European Jews on New York’s Lower East Side to tell their immigrant stories.

             

    • The migration west: Jane Applegate’s Snookum: An Oregon Pioneer Family’s History and Lore is an excellent example of documenting the experience of settling the frontier.
    • Family occupation or career: British novelist Robert Louis Stevenson used it to tell his family’s story in Records of a Family of Engineers. The book, recently published after work by the Gutenberg Project, explores the family firm that built most of Scotland’s lighthouses.
    • Political persecution: Kati Marton’s Enemies of the People: My Family’s Journey to America tells the story of her parents, both Hungarian journalists who were imprisoned by the communist government after World War II and finally escaped to the United States after the failure of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.

            

    In thinking about the theme for your book look for both what’s unique about the experiences of your ancestors and what universal lessons those experiences might teach your readers.

    

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