Novelist Suzanne Berne’s book Missing Lucile: Memories of the Grandmother I Never Knew chronicles her search for meaning in her family’s history.
The experience is one that is familiar genealogists and family historians. It might also be a cautionary tale they would be well to examine.
At the heart is her grandmother, Lucile, who died of cancer in her early forties. However, her father, a very young boy at the time, always believed that his mother had abandoned him. He said, “We were told she was gone. No one ever said where.”
Berne decided that her missing grandmother was "the Rosetta stone by which all subsequent family guilt and unhappiness could be decoded.” She set out to unlock the family secrets by discovering what she could about Lucile’s story.
The result leads Julie Myerson, British novelist, book reviewer for the BBC, to comment in her New York Times Book Review, “…this is my kind of book. Why, then, did I find it so arduous?”
The answer lies in Berne’s decision to tell the story not as a novelist, but as a journalist or historian might do it. She commits herself to creating a factual account of the family’s history. She does imagine what might have happened or have been said on occasions where all of the facts can’t be discovered. But each time, she stops the narrative to tell her reader what she’s doing.
The string of cautions and qualifiers leads Myerson to say, “I began to dread the sight of another lumpen passage dotted with Berne’s increasingly repetitive what-ifs and perhapses.”
That’s too bad. There is another way.
Myerson said, “Berne has said that she originally thought of writing her grandmother’s life as a novel, and you can see why. She’s a first-rate fiction writer, and the passages where she quits her detective-style ruminating and allows herself to bounce off on some imaginative tangent are by far the most vivid and successful in the book. Skies and flowers burst to life. History turns from black and white into techni-color. You can smell the air, feel the breeze on your cheek. People have conversations that sound credible and alive. Who cares if they didn’t happen exactly as they’re written?”
This is a lesson for family historians. Family history is not academic history. The goal is to bring ancestors to life, and draw the reader into your book, by telling their stories. The factual record is often incomplete, with gaps that can only be filled by using inference and imagination to round out the story.
We can see these techniques of creative-nonfiction employed by masters in books like Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, Joyce Carol Oates’ On Boxing and George Plimpton’s Paper Lion.
Lee Gutkind, author and professor at Arizona State University, who Vanity Fair dubbed “the Godfather” of creative non-fiction explains, “…creative nonfiction” precisely describes what the form is all about. The word ‘creative’ refers simply to the use of literary craft in presenting nonfiction—that is, factually accurate prose about real people and events—in a compelling, vivid manner. To put it another way, creative nonfiction writers do not make things up; they make ideas and information that already exist more interesting and, often, more accessible.”
When you write your own family history consider employing the techniques of creative-nonfiction to tell your family’s stories. It will make the experience for your readers much more lively and interesting than relying only on what can be drawn from the facts. You can preserve the documentation by listing source material for the factual record in an appendix, for those who want to read it.