- Published: 01 December 2019 01 December 2019
"Every family history includes such stories of survival, of prevailing against great suffering and despair. Perhaps these family histories, small as they might be and utterly invisible to the world, hold the key to facing our larger worries, too, and showing the way through.." —Margaret Renkl
"Most of my childhood memories are happy. My dad hunted. Birds mostly, so whenever we go out and quail or dove is on the menu, I immediately order it because it tastes like my childhood. That makes me feel warm and content" —Joshilyn Jackson
Her ladyship, the editor, spent the Thanksgiving holidays visiting with her parents and perhaps inadvertently launched both her mother and father on a long, bewildering, and unintended journey by helping to start a family tree on one of those online genealogy websites. Everyone concerned was immediately plunged into a wonderland-world of swirling birth records, county marriage licenses, federal census data, and reprinted obituaries from which her ladyship has only just managed to disentangle herself with great difficulty.
There is a rather delightfully addictive quality to family trees. Not that one expects to find anybody famous (highly unlikely) or "royal" (certainly not, her ladyship's antecedents were Mennonite farmers). But there is something rather fantastic in discovering that one's great-great grand uncle was a grocer in Pennsylvania, or that a great-great grandfather spent a year or so in Brooklyn as a librarian.
It is the "story" of family that is interesting. The "how did we get here for there?" that makes up the bones of every plot in every novel: why did a great aunt get on a ship in La Havre bound for New York with her six children but no husband? Why did a great great uncle enlist to fight in the Civil War if the family was pacifist? Why did a grandmother shorten her name when she started working?
Two things that made it into her ladyship's "commonplace book" last week echoed this longing for family story: Jon Mayes interviewed Joshilyn Jackson (Never Have I Ever), who spoke about growing up in a military family that moved frequently. Lacking any real memories of a specific home place from when she was a child, Jackson says she made up her own: "My memories are tied to either taste and smell or to my own obsessions. I can tell you that around seven I had created a whole cat planet with a system of government and a religion and a huge rotating cast of characters."
Margaret Renkl (Late Migrations), on the other hand, has long memories, and carries the memories of her mothers and grandmothers as well, which she writes about in a beautiful essay, "Why I Wear Five Wedding Rings." Faced with a seemingly endless book tour and a crippling burden of stage fright, she remembers, "one day it finally dawned on me that their wedding rings would make the perfect talismans against fear....it worked."
Both Never Have I Ever and Late Migrations are both finalists for the Southern Book Prize. You can vote here at www.southernbookprize.com