Monday, June 16, 2014

The Dead Can’t Tell Stories


As a ghostwriter, I have written many memoirs for non-writers. Memoir is my favorite genre to ghostwrite, perhaps because of my educational background in history. I love exploring how our individual lives affect, or are affected by, the events and trends of “big history.” It’s a cliché that “every life has a story” but it is a cliché because it is true. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these stories are never told.

How many of us wish they had an ancestor’s story, told in their own words? Sometimes all we know is a tantalizing tidbit: a tiny piece of an ancestor’s story that raises as many questions as it answers. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, we think, to know the hopes, dreams, wishes and fears of Great-Great-Grandma as she bounced over the plains in a covered wagon? Wouldn’t it be cool to know what Great-Great Uncle Joe was thinking while he robbed that bank? And why did Great-great-great Grandpa leave Scotland in such a hurry? Well, if they didn’t write their thoughts down, you’ll never know now.

I was told that my great-grandmother on my father’s side was Native American, from the Blackfoot tribe (now in Montana) – but then I was also told that she was a “half-breed” (a derogatory term of the time) and the Native American half was Nez Perce from Idaho – but then I was also told she wasn’t Native American at all, but born and raised in a small town in Kansas, the daughter of the local doctor. The story depended on who you were talking to. It’s hard to know the truth now, since she’s been dead for over fifty years, and so is everyone who really knew her.

History does agree that her name was Evelyn McKay (McKay being her married name) and she died at the age of 90-something in 1954. Before that, there seems to be some disagreement. The story I like best is the one told me long ago by her daughter, my great-aunt, also now long deceased. I don’t know if it’s true or if my great-aunt embellished it or made it up. It goes like this:

Evelyn McKay was born and raised on a reservation in Idaho (her daughter wouldn’t name the tribe), and lived there until she was a teenager, around the1880s. That’s when a circuit preacher rode onto her reservation. A circuit preacher meant that he rode (on horseback or in a buggy) between the little towns in eastern Washington, Idaho, and Montana, and preached his brand of Christianity for a few days, and then rode on. Towns would see him once or twice a year when he would regale them with hair-raising sermons on the hell-fire and damnation he saw waiting for them. Those in the family who remembered the Preacher agreed that he was not a lovable man, being particularly given to frightening small children with vivid descriptions of hell.

But there must have been something about him, for he was able to convince the young Evelyn to marry him. He took her away with him and plunked her down somewhere in Eastern Washington, and left her there to birth and raise their seven children while he rode his rounds, totally uncaring of the vicious racial bias against Indians and “half-breeds” which was normal for the western towns of the time. She must have had a lonely, difficult life.

Or maybe not. Maybe she coped well with a Bible-thumping wanderer, and wasn’t the victim of anti-Indian prejudice.  But I wish I knew for sure. I bet she had fascinating stories, at the very least.  I wish I’d been around then to ask her questions and write her stories down. But no one did, and now those stories are as dead as she is.

So that’s the moral of the story: write your stories down (or hire a ghostwriter to write them for you). Because someday, you will be someone’s ancestor.

Kim Pearson is an author, ghostwriter, and owner of Primary Sources, a writing service that helps others become authors of professional and compelling books and articles. She has authored 6 books of her own, and ghostwritten more than 30 non-fiction books and memoirs. To learn more about her books or services, visit Primary-Sources.com.

11 comments :

  1. Half-breed or half-caste or “part Aboriginal” is still offensive when referring to Australian Aboriginal people. I can’t speak for any other POC though.

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    1. When writing about the past, I sometimes wrestle with using words or idioms commonly used in other eras that are offensive. However I usually end up using them anyway because they reflect the truths of that era, and to not do so is to minimize the hurts done to earlier generations of people. I don't think sanitizing history is a good idea. In the case of my great-grandmother, she would have had to deal with those words and the bigotry behind them, so it would be part of her story.

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    2. Oh I agree about not sanitising history. As long as the context is made clear it is important for people to know what terms/idioms were used and presenting the historical context is often an opportunity to explain why such terms are offensive now.

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  2. I spent over two years researching our family background. My mom didn't know much at all and her parents were dead by then. I found out my great grandmother was Cordelia Clark, daughter of the infamous Old Joe Clark of folk song fame. It appears old Joe had a wife and a girlfriend. In the last census I could find, the women were living together separate from old Joe. I would love to interview them. His cabin still exists in Kentucky. There were so many other tidbits I'd love to learn more about. We don't really get curious enough to ask until we're older, and that is often too late. Genealogy is like a treasure hunt. Being able to find a family member, then find their story would priceless.

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    1. You're right, researching family history is like a treasure hunt. One thing I've found is that not only familial traits but the same kinds of stories seem to run in families. In my family, on both sides, I found many impetuous marriages between people who'd known each other only days or weeks before they married. Weird.

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  3. My father was adopted, and a copy of the adoption decree was the sole documentation of my roots. Twenty years of detective work was finally halted when a Minnesota family court judge ruled against releasing an unredacted copy of my father's birth certificate. A century on, with all parties long dead, and I hit a legal brick wall. I have only guesses and clues about my grandmother and not even the name of my grandfather.

    But, I'm a novelist. I make up stories for a living, I invent things to fill in blanks. So, I decided to make up the story as best I can. WIP.

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    1. Larry, I've ghostwritten quite a few memoirs about adoption, which also is present in my own family. I'm familiar with those brick walls. I think sometimes those "made up" stories have just as much truth in them as the ones we think we know.

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  4. Then again, there are stories that shouldn't be told ... I'm not saying whose ... I'm just saying ...

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    1. I'm for truth whenever possible, but I agree that sometimes the truth can hurt in ways you can't foresee. Besides, the truth is not always knowable.

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  5. And some no one wants you to tell. :)

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  6. A few years back, a man from Israel contacted my cousin in Boston. It turned out he was the husband of my grandmother's sister's granddaughter. He worked for British Airways and had traveled the world piecing together my grandmother's family. I have all the information, including the picture and register of the ship my grandparents came over to this country on. While my grandmother was alive, I became interested in where she was from. She couldn't remember the name but came up with a city in Lithuania. Sure enough, that's where she was from. It was an amazing history.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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