Motivational Monday: Writing my Family’s History

This week, Brain, Child magazine is featuring an essay that I wrote for them several years ago.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but the topic of the essay was the impetus for me to start tracing my family tree.  Somewhere along the line of going back into my family’s past, after  starting this blog, finding real live family members as well as artifacts on my family, I decided to write a memoir. (God willing) I”m in the home stretch.  Finishing a project is always much more difficult for me than beginning, so it was a nice little sign from the universe when Brain, Child decided to feature the piece that got me going on this journey in the first place.  You can read the essay here:

I got an extra dose of inspiration last Friday when I had the great pleasure of hosting a book club that included the author of the book we were discussing.  Our club’s pick this month was the New York Times bestseller “Orphan Train,” by Christina Baker Kline.  The night was such a treat:  The novel takes a forgotten part of American history and weaves it into a compelling journey.  The author brought her dad along.  I got to ask a question about her book’s structure which I thought  worked so well, something I”m struggling with in my own memoir.

The night was inspiring.  Her obvious passion and enthusiasm for the real life orphan train riders that she met in the course of researching her book stoked a flame that’s been waning in me. For your own bit of inspiration, here’s the book trailer:

Follow Friday: Family and Forgotten History


The benefits of researching my family history are too numerous to list, but one that bears mentioning is how much uncovering my family’s past has taught me things about history that I never learned in school. It wasn’t until I found a newspaper anecdote  about a party my great-grandmother Josephine threw on January 1st, 1892 did I learn the first of the year was also Emancipation Day, commemorating the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation which freed all slaves.  I also learned that there were more slave narratives than those of famous former slaves like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs whose remarkable stories I read in college.  In the late 1930s, volunteers from the Federal Writer’s Project  collected slave narratives too, but of former slaves no one had ever heard of. Within those archived accounts is mention of my great great grandfather’s home.

So, I was so excited to learn that a forgotten history that I’ve been reading, The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal and the Real Count of Monte Cristo was just awarded the Pulitzer Prize for biography.

Written by Tom Reiss, Black Count is the real life story behind the fictional Count of Monte Cristo.  The real “count” was actually Alexandre Dumas, a general in the French Army, born to a slave woman from Haiti and a French aristocrat on the run.  His real life swashbuckling inspired the novels written by his son of the same name.

As I read The Black Count, what struck me as deeply as Reiss’s captivating account of this forgotten hero, was how much attitudes about race in France changed for the worse, minimizing the General’s place in history, his African ancestry and even how we view his famous son whose books we still read over a century later.

(Before you heard it referenced in Django Unchained, did you know that the author of the classics, the Three Musketeers and the Count of Monte Cristo was of African ancestry?)

I’m also reading Orphan Train, Christina Baker Kline’s novel based on a little known part of American history. From the mid 1850s to the early 1900s, the so called orphan trains took thousands of orphaned and abandoned children from the east coast to be adopted by families in the midwest. The main character in Kline’s book was one such child and her riveting past is revealed when she meets a teenager  who has spent her life in and out of foster homes.

Before I started reading her book, I had never heard about this part of American history. My husband’s paternal ancestors ended up in the midwest after immigrating to the USA from Finland.  Of course I can’t help but wonder now if the orphan train is a part of any of their history.

What forgotten history have you stumbled on while searching for your family’s past?

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