My thoughts on David Malouf’s A First Place

David MaloufI’ve just begun an e-book of short stories, A First Place, by David Malouf. Absorbing stories written by Australians always seem slightly disorienting, so accustomed are we (or is it only me?) to reading books whose settings are elsewhere. Which came first, the sense that “other is better”, leading to the exodus of much of Australia’s talent, or the relative weighting of other and local?

One story, A First Place, is about growing up in Brisbane and how its particular topography and lifestyle defines not only who we become as adults, but how we think. That certainly gave me pause for thought, and I can’t decide the merits of the case, but is that because it’s part of me?

Brisbane is a hilly city – not mountainous, just hilly, where travelling by car or foot anywhere involves the negotiation of hills. From a large-scale view, the hills are not so obvious, it’s when one is on the ground that it becomes so much more apparent. One of the earliest things a Brisbane learner-driver has to come to terms with is hill starts in a geared car. After nearly two decades of living in flat-as-a-tack Darwin I sometimes forget I have to change gears or use more power when going up a hill. Our geography does change our daily patterns.

Taken from a hotel in the CBD, this view is to the south.

Taken from a hotel in the CBD, this view is to the south.

Malouf posits that the topography of the city means “it shapes in those who grow up there a different sensibility, a cast of mind, creates a different sort of Australian”. The hilliness of the city means that its residents miss the long vistas of flatter cities like Adelaide or Melbourne. They become accustomed to new views at every rise, and this may make them restless in the absence of variety, as well as precluding a clear map of the mind. I’d suggest it might also inculcate a sense of mystery in the same way that a door into a garden, rather than shut you out, makes you more curious what lies behind…or is that, once again, the Brisbane girl in me? He’s certainly correct that it gives the legs a good workout, especially if you grew up relying on Shanks’ pony to get you everywhere – something that’s noticeably absent from Darwin’s flatness, and the laziness that tropical humidity generates.

He also talks about the river’s unusual snake-like twisting through the city: one of the reasons the flooding a few years back caused so much damage, as it has in the past. Add to that the relative lack of bridges forcing the traveller to negotiate twice as many suburbs as a direct route would allow.  The river conspires to shut off vistas as do the hills, but I think it also opens up a sense of a city of two sides on both banks.

Brisbane River snakes through the city and here, the CBD. You can see some of the bridges, two of which are new.

Brisbane River snakes through the city and here, the CBD. You can see some of the bridges -the one in the centre is a new pedestrian bridge, called the Kurilpa Bridge (or the Knitting Needle Bridge as I do).

Now that the river has become an active character in the Brisbane landscape with the arrival of the City Cats (ferries) along with the riverside walkways, it does open up the city in a different way. In much the same way as the hills, it makes you wonder (if you don’t already), what is round the next corner. No wonder a river tour has become so popular over the past decades.1113 Brisbane river and ferry stop

The hills and river combine in a story my father has handed down. I often wondered whether it was something he’d made up, even though it made eminent sense, until a friend whose father was also a born-and-bred old Queenslander confirmed the same story. In the pioneering days, the drays would travel across the city along the ridges of the hills when the river was in flood. My father did much the same when my cousin’s house was in imminent risk of flooding back in 1974, helping him to get his belongings up to the ceiling before the flood hit (reaching very close to the ceiling – two floors).

The Story Bridge at sunset, a city cat, and in the distance my school, one of Brisbane's heritage sites.

The Story Bridge at sunset, a city cat, and in the distance my school, one of Brisbane’s heritage sites.

As Malouf says, Brisbane has a radial design, striking out from the city centre. In the days when few families had their own car, this meant that setting out on a journey could make two suburbs seem immeasurably far apart, and mystifyingly disconnected. This is how I experienced visits to my grandfather at Buranda from Kelvin Grove, or family friends at the outside reaches of Mt Gravatt. It wasn’t until we acquired a car, or until I travelled more by car, that the geography of the city started to make sense in a quite different way. The CBD of the city may be suitably laid out in grid-fashion (and flat) but not the rest of the place. Motorways (and bus lanes) cut through suburbs like knives now, but the new tunnels and underpasses generate a lack of knowledge of the landscape above, until one pops out, bandicoot-like, at the other end, hopefully in the right place, or somewhere you recognise and can navigate from.

Although not in a very hilly street, the home my grandparents lived in is a good example of the Queenslander style of house.

Although not in a hilly street, the home my grandparents once lived in is a good example of the Queenslander style of house.

Malouf also has a theory that Brisbane’s tree-house-like homes, built on stilts to accommodate the hills and introduce breezes, affect the psyche of those who grew up there.  His argument is that their openness, with doors always ajar, introduce an element of not-seeing, not-hearing as appropriate to the circumstances. The timber of the building moves in a way that brick structures do not, and are more vulnerable to climate as well as protecting the family from it. I’m not entirely sure that I agree with his thesis on the effect of Brisbane (or more accurately, tropical, housing). It seems predicated on a particular type of house, the old Queenslander with its encircling verandahs rather even than post-war timber housing, and certainly not on the more modern brick bungalow or two-story house. On the other hand, doors are only shut here because of air-conditioning so perhaps he has a point.

“Under the house” is a different world from that above where all serious living takes place. Home of the household washing machine, tubs, wringer or boiler, Dad’s workbenches and the kids’ play area, it has a sort of wondrousness about it as well as a daily practicality. It offers the chance to explore what Malouf calls “a kind of archaeological site”, hosting as it does all sorts of odds and ends that have found their way to rest there, as well as on-going practical items. This space certainly features prominently in my childhood memories of both my own home and that of my grandparents next door. I used to love using my grandfather’s vice to crack the Queensland nuts (now known as macadamias) which grew on our tree. Usually enclosed by timber battens, “under the house” is both open and yet secure. Surely this experience is different from those for whom a basement may serve similar functions?

Malouf asks himself “what habits of mind such a city may encourage in its citizens, and how, though taken for granted in this place, they may differ from the habits of places where geography declares itself at every point as helpful, reliable, being itself a map”. I suspect it gives your internal GPS such good training that ever after you are more able to understand other places.

The Brisbane River approaches the city from the west.

The Brisbane River flows out to Moreton Bay -you can see the Gateway Bridge here, dwarfed by altitude. Very kind of the pilot to take the river and city route that particular time -doesn’t happen frequently, and then you have to have the camera ready too.

If a good writer’s goal is to make one think, and challenge our internal assumptions, then Malouf has achieved this for me today.

Have you thought about the impact of the geography of where you grew up? Do you think it has affected how you see the world psychologically and emotionally, your habits and sense of the world’s geography.

Book: A First Place, David Malouf. Random House 2014. A collection of personal essays and writing from David Malouf to celebrate his 80th birthday. This includes the following short story: A First Place. 1984 Blakelock Lecture.

Like so many cities, Brisbane has its own sight-seeing ferris wheel. Adjacent is the Cultural Precinct.

Like so many cities, Brisbane has its own sight-seeing ferris wheel. Adjacent is the Cultural Precinct.

The joys of local histories

Shauna Hicks is writing a 52 week series on genealogical records to “stimulate her genealogy blogging efforts”. She’s invited us to join her on the journey and while I’m behind, how could I miss out on the Week 7 topic: local histories…. after all they take up a fair bit of my bookshelf space.

Why local histories?

local histories 2Local histories tend to come in all shapes and sizes, and sometimes those tiny volumes can include significant information. Only rarely will they specifically mention one’s own family, but that doesn’t matter. Our families aren’t islands and they share their community with their friends, associates and neighbours (FANs) as well as, possibly, other family members. Anything which expands our knowledge of the family’s community adds texture and richness to what we know of family stories and – it may even break down brick walls.

I’d categorise types of local histories these ways:

1. “Anecdotal” local histories which draw on the memories of those who live(d) there.

These are often chatty, informative stories but can be very subjective, which is not to say they are incorrect. Rather that the reader needs to weigh up what they’re being told. I feel sure that if you’ve ever had a conversation with a spouse or sibling, you’ll recall instances where you each remember an event completely differently. For me, the weakness of this type of history is that often only a select group of people are interviewed, or choose to be interviewed, which lends a bias to the overall history. I wrote about this, in part, in an earlier blog post. Better than no history, of course, but leaving one craving more, or just wondering. Nor does this type of local history tend to include broader historical context so we can judge if the community’s experience is typical or uncommon.

2.      “Academic” local historieslocal histories 1

These may be somewhat esoteric and seem too dense to bother with at times. However because they have to be reviewed by academic peers, they generally have more depth. What they lack is often a sense of the individuals who lived in the community, though they are certainly a bridge between the individual’s experience of history and national or international perspectives. They may exist as published histories but it’s also worth searching local universities to see if a Masters or PhD student has written a thesis on your area of interest.

3.      “Rounded” local histories

I struggled to find a term which satisfied me for this category. These may include a blend of broader history together with the story of the specific community and its circumstances, as well as some of the families who lived there.

Crows Nest Folk Museum & Village.

Crows Nest Folk Museum & Village, Queensland.

4.      “Pictorial” local histories

Although they offer less depth than any of the above, pictorial histories can bring the stories to light more clearly by showing you photographs or paintings of communities or regions either currently, or contemporaneous with when your family lived there.

5.      Built local history

I’m sure this wasn’t what Shauna had in mind but why not consider the local history that a local historical museum can offer you? It may be they also have a small publication on the area which you won’t find elsewhere, but they’ll have artefacts and perhaps buildings which show you how your ancestors lived. I wrote about these, as well as local histories, in my 52 weeks Beyond the Internet series in 2012.

Beyond the Internet

6.      Local history theory

What does it mean to study local history? How do we know the best ways to study local history? I have quite a few of these types of books too, thanks to my study for an Advanced Diploma in Local History.

So what’s my favourite local history?

You can see from all the tags how much info I've got from these two books.

You can see from all the tags how much info I’ve got from these two books.

Hands down I’d have to say the book Dorfprozelten Teil II written by Georg Veh in collaboration with members of the community. I’m forever dipping into it for my own family and that of the other Dorfprozelten emigrants.

A phenomenal amount of work has gone into it, listing as it does the residents of this Bavarian village from 1844 when the first land register was prepared. Not only that, it includes a plethora of BDM details for many of the families, as well as photographs of the community which make it easier to understand the village irrespective of whether the reader understands German.

This is of course perfect for research into the families and individuals who not only lived in the community but who emigrated. In fact a section of the book called be sub-titled “Inns and Emigrants”. In this I was very fortunate personally as my ancestral Happ family had owned an inn in the village for at least 150 years. This book gave me wonderful information, and photographs, which I was given permission to include in my Kunkel family history.

In terms of the emigrants, there’s no indication in the book of where the information was sourced. I am culpable in regard to the Australian-bound emigrants. What I provided to Georg at the time has been added to, and in some cases amended, as my knowledge has grown of their experiences –sometimes after repeatedly hassling poor Georg to clarify particular family details.

Frustratingly, albeit understandably, there is no index but I have prepared a partial one for my own use.

Summary

So there you have it. Hopefully some of this will offer food for thought, and an inclination to give local history a whirl to add flavour to your family history. I truly believe it’s impossible to do a well-rounded family history without looking at your family’s community.

As well as finding books on e-bay (use Google alerts) or select bookstores, I’ve just found this site, ISBNS.net which might prove helpful to you and which I can see becoming a firm favourite of mine.

And don’t forget if you live near an Australian reference library you will be able to submit an inter-library loan for any books held by the National Library of Australia.

A sample of the local history books on my shelves, or that I can recommend:

A centenary of memories: The Dungog Chronicle 1888-1988. Muddle, J and Hucherko K. The Dungog Chronicle

Argyll 1730-1850: Commerce, Community And Culture. McGeachy, R A A. John Donald Publishers, 2005.

Billabidgee: history of Urana Shire, Central Riverina, New South Wales. Bayley, WA. Urana Shire Council, 1959.

Conrad Martens in Queensland : the frontier travels of a colonial artist.  Steele, JG. University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 1978.

Dorfprozelten am Main Teil II. Veh, G, Benedict Press, 2002 (this is my “bible” for historical research on Dorfprozelten around the time the emigrants came to Australia).

Dorfprozelten am Main: Ein Dorf im Wandel seiner 1000Jährigen Geschichte. Veh, G, Benedict Press 1995.

Footsteps through Time: a history of Chinchilla Shire (two hefty volumes). Mathews, T. Chinchilla Shire Council, 2004.

From Tall Timbers: a folk history of Crow’s Nest Shire. Crow’s Nest &​ District Tourist &​ Progress Association Inc., 1988.

Herston, Recollections and Reminiscences. Hacker, DJ; Hallam DR; Spinaze, M. Queensland Women’s Historical Association. 1995.

History of South Lochaweside. McGrigor, M. Oban Times Ltd, Oban, 1996.

Laufach. Jutta Fries, 2002.

Lismore, The Great Garden. Hay, R. Birlinn Limited, Edinburgh, 2009. (Lismore, Scotland)

Lost Argyll, Argyll’s lost heritage. Pallister, M. Birlinn Limited, Edinburgh, 2005.

Villages of Northern Argyll. Withall, M. John Donald Publishers, 2004.

Vision Splendid: a history of the Winton Shire. Forrest, P and S. Winton Shire Council and Winton and District Historical Society, 2005.

That’s not all folks but it’s surely enough for one day!

Running Writing Heirlooms

We all know the thrill of seeing an ancestor’s signature for the first time. Somehow it makes them seem that much closer to us.

P1190433In her Heirlooms podcast Maria (from Genies Down Under) suggests leaving a sample of your handwriting for descendants, perhaps even some of your family history. Quite honestly this would be a challenge beyond palaeography with some of my notes <smile>. In fact future readers may wonder if it was encrypted.

There’s increasing discussion that we are losing our familiarity with “running writing”, both reading and writing it, that we always type and never write. Is that true for you? Yes I certainly prefer to type stories or family history, not just for legibility but also so it can be stored digitally. Also because these days I think through my fingers, if that makes sense, and my writing can’t keep up. Perhaps we should also be storing a digital copy of something we’ve handwritten. And while we’re at it, why not save a voice recording?

Maybe it’s my career in administration but I have no problem recognising who wrote what annotation on a file (provided I’ve seen their writing before). I can almost always tell who a letter or card comes from without cheating and looking at the back, or opening it first.

How about you? Do you still send snail mail letters, cards or notes? Do you recognise your friends’ or family’s writing? If the answers are a resounding “no” perhaps it’s a resolution for 2013 to occasionally revert to the old ways and use non-digital social media. After all one day someone may think that card is an heirloom. What do you think?

By the way I’ve started another blog (yes, mad I know!) called Bewitched by Books. It’s not rocket science to figure out its content so if you’re interested why not pop over and have a look. Today’s post is a bit of 1950s fun which will be of interest to those with an interest in the more recent “olden days”, and life in our youth, well mine anyway.

52 Weeks of Abundant Genealogy: Week 42 – Greatest Genie Achievement

It’s ages since I participated in the 52 Weeks of Abundant Genealogy by Amy Coffin and hosted by Geneabloggers as I’ve been rather preoccupied with my own 52 weeks Beyond the Internet series.

This morning I read that the topic for Week 42 of Abundant Genealogy is Biggest Genealogy Accomplishment. What do you feel is your biggest genealogy accomplishment? What were the steps you took to get there, and what was the end result?

 My first thoughts turned to an earlier Abundant Genealogy post from Week 7 when I wrote about discovering my Bavarian ancestor’s roots. It was only later that I thought, no that’s not my biggest genealogy accomplishment, even though it was certainly a critical point in my family research.

 MY BIGGEST GENEALOGY ACHIEVEMENT?

The thing I’m most proud of, genealogically, is writing the history of my Kunkel family in Queensland: a pioneering family who, although not important as individuals, participated in important events in our country’s and our state’s achievements and progress. It was the family’s everyday ordinariness that gave me the name of the book: Grassroots Queenslanders: the Kunkel Family.

Thanks to the discovery I mentioned above, and fantastic oral history connections that were uncovered, I was able to include the background story of my Happ-Kunkel families in Bavaria and my O’Brien ancestors from Ballykelly near Broadford in Co Clare, and a little about the other emigrants from Dorfprozelten in Bavaria.

I knew literally nothing about this family when I started out other than the fact Kunkel was plainly a name of German origin, and that my grandfather had several siblings only one or two of whom he had anything to do with. I also knew that he had originally been a Catholic and one of the points of contention had been his marrying a Scots Presbyterian.

 GOING ABOUT IT

My research started in the pre-internet era so I accumulated every snippet of information I could find from as many sources as possible. One day I realised that if I didn’t write up this family story, it would become a major regret.

So what did I do? One of the strange things I did was to decide not to look at other family histories because I didn’t want to pinch their ideas. In retrospect this was fairly silly as there are so many strategies that can be used – you don’t have to recreate the wheel. Instead I launched in, started writing and kept at it, day after day, until the story came together. I was still working full-time so I wrote in the early mornings and late into the evenings.

Sir Cassmob is knighted for services to genealogy.

As I found gaps in the story I chased down more clues, did more research, and phoned more people. I’m proud of all the research, determination and sheer persistence that went into writing up this story, including challenging my reluctance to contact formerly unknown relatives.

Like the Oscars I have to acknowledge that many people helped me along the way with their stories, photos etc, but my greatest debt is to Mr Cassmob, who got a Family Knighthood for Services to Genealogy! I’ve said many times, either the book wouldn’t have been written or I’d have been much thinner.

Sir Cassmob receives his award.

When I first held my “baby” in my hands I was just so thrilled and besotted. Now of course I can see its flaws, mistakes, and things I could have done differently, but even so it was, and remains, an achievement to be proud of.

THE END RESULT

The book was launched by one of my distant O’Brien cousins, who always tells me “oh you’re wonderful” but what she really means is that I’m quite mad to keep doing all this family history. We launched the book in Toowoomba not far from where the family had lived for many years and as far as is known it was the first Kunkel family reunion in close to 100 years.

A mob of Kunkels chatting hammer and tongs.

It was a great day and there was a non-step level of chatter even among people who’d never met before. Many were astonished to discover they had Kunkel ancestry and everyone appreciated learning more of the story. The genealogy chart stretched along the walls and everybody had fun finding their name. Another great thing, retrospectively, is that quite a number of the third generation of Kunkel descendants were able to attend even though in their eighties or nineties Many have now left us so it was a special privilege to have them there. The reunion and all the pleasure people got from it and from the book was definitely the icing on the cake.

My beautiful Alexander Henderson Award was hand-delivered to the GSNT.

The glitter on the cake was winning two awards for the book. I was so proud to be joint-winner of Queensland Family History Society’s annual award with Joyce Philips’s book The Wrights of Tivoli.  And then to my utter astonishment I also won the Alexander Henderson Award from the Australian Institute of Genealogical Studies.  I was over the moon with excitement and pride as you might imagine.

It’s very counter-cultural to blow one’s own trumpet, certainly in Australia where there’s an absolute dislike of people who puff themselves up, so it feels very brazen to be telling this story.

There’s something special about knowing you’re leaving a family history for posterity and that you’ve opened up your family’s story to many family members. It’s certainly one of my proudest moments.  So if you’ve been thinking of writing your own family history, give it a go and don’t let the fear stop you. I guarantee you will be so pleased to have provided this inheritance for generations to come.

Thoughts on The Last Blue Sea

In the midst of the jungle men pray for strength. MASS BEFORE BATTLE ON SALAMAUA TRAIL. (1943, August 16). The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld. : 1933 – 1954), p. 3. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article42021915

Lately my mind has been turning to Papua New Guinea again as we plan an upcoming trip back to Alotau after a mere 41 years. As it does in these circumstances, one thought leads to another and before long I’m off on a tangent.

No surprise then that I picked up my copy of The Last Blue Sea the other night to re-read it. Originally published in 1959 the book won the inaugural Dame Mary Gilmore Award. My guess is that it would be the best part of forty years since I last read it, having first encountered the book in high school.

News of the day: the battles near Salamaua. 11 ZEROS SHOT DOWN. (1943, August 4). The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA : 1931 – 1954), p. 4.  http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article48762488

In theory the novel is entirely fictitious except for the presence of renowned war photographer Damien Parer.  Whatever the truth of the specifics, there’s little doubt that the story builds on personal experience and a deep knowledge of World War II in New Guinea circa 1943 (post-Kokoda). It has an unusual writing style which ultimately seemed very effective but I confess I occasionally got confused as to which soldier was which, despite the list of key characters in the beginning.

This is one book in which the place (the jungle near Salamaua in what was then New Guinea) is very much a major character, shaping the individual soldier’s experience and responses. Having the tiniest understanding of just how impenetrable the jungles of PNG can be, I am in awe of their survival and persistence.

My take-away thoughts from this book were:

  • The all-encompassing power of the jungle, the impact of the leaves and the enemy hidden within
  • The sheer physical and mental brutality of survival, let alone fighting, in such conditions
  • The impact of poor leadership and equally the commitment of the men to leaders in whom they believed
  • The men’s tendency to hide the truth of the horrors they saw from their loved ones at home
  • The courage of the men was very low-key and it evoked a memory of a family friend who fought as a sniper near Kokoda: you’d have thought it was a doddle from the way he spoke.
  • The platoon leader calling his men’s lives “the crown jewels of Australia”: the loss of these men impacted Australia for decades afterwards
  • The sheer horror of men who, severely injured, had to make their own way out of the jungle over precipitous mountain ranges, often alone because there was no other option.
  • I was intrigued by references to the militia units at Bargara near Bundaberg at the time of the Battle of the Coral Sea. So far I haven’t tracked down the truth or otherwise of that element.

I found this novel to be very powerful and will be rereading it again soon, to absorb the finer points I missed in my rush to follow the story.

The nom-de-plume of the author was David Forrest and in fact I never knew it wasn’t the author’s real name. Turning to Google I found that David Forrest was the aka for Dr David Denholm. As soon as I read that, bells rang in my head. Sure enough he is the author of a BA (Hons) dissertation at The University of Queensland, on the Coming of the Germans to the Darling Downs 1852-1861, which I’ve referenced in my Dorfprozelten research. I was quite tickled to discover this link.

As I read the book the words of an Australian poet echoed in my mind. David Campbell’s poem Men in Green carries some of the same resonances. This is a short extract but please do have a look at the full poem from this link:

Their eyes were bright, their looks were dull,

Their skin had turned to clay

Nature had met them in the night

And stalked them in the day.

And I think still of men in green

On the Soputa track

With fifteen spitting tommy-guns

To keep a jungle back.

Genre Favourites Blogfest

The other day I read about the Genre Favourites (and Guilty Pleasures) Blogfest on the L’Aussie Writer Blog. It sounded like a bit of fun so I thought, why not join in? So here are my responses.

MOVIES

One of my favourite movies ever is Out of Africa: the costuming, the scenery, the interaction with the Africans. The landscape is so theatrical and a character in the story. I would love to soar above the landscape in a hot air balloon, perhaps the closest to what they saw in the old bi-plane. A dream for 2013.

Hot air balloons over the Masai Mara, Kenya. Image Wikipedia commons.

For me it’s not the love interest that is the tear-jerker element in Out of Africa. In the Ladies’ Room afterwards, all the women were crying over Robert Redford’s death and talking about it. I was crying for the servant, who loyally and futilely waited for her to send for him. It’s always seemed to me like a betrayal of sorts.

My guilty pleasure is rom-coms among which You’ve Got Mail stands out. At the time I harboured a secret ambition to own a bookstore: the movie convinced me that wasn’t such a great idea, and given the virtual world of bookshops these days that was probably no bad thing. Dream bombed!

BOOKS

Setting aside my devotion to historical books (not fiction), I’m a big crime novel reader, a habit that goes way back into childhood with the Trixie Belden books.

I suffer from author-addiction: devouring each book my favourite authors publish and  waiting anxiously for their next story. Don’t you hate it when a favourite author is inconsiderate enough to die on you leaving you with no hope of further entertainment….inconvenient for them too of course!

Perhaps my favourite crime author is Michael Connelly and his Hieronymus (Harry) Bosch character. Bosch, the LA homicide detective, has such commitment and grittiness which make the stories realistic as do his human weaknesses.

My weakness for crime pours over into TV as well where there’s nothing better than a good crime series on a Friday night, especially in those weeks when work’s been a bit of a pain. Again the grittier the better and so Taggart has to be a favourite with its Glaswegian accents and attitudes.

MUSIC

Bagpipes in my blood. Celtic music (Scottish or Irish) is my fave.

It’s a toss up this one but since I have to choose I’ll go with Celtic music, and I’m a big fan of Mary Black. If you’re interested in more of my music habits you can check out the Merry Month of May Music Meme we had earlier this year.

Guilty pleasure in music is probably country music which we mostly listen to while driving long distances –it seems to fit with the locale.

Thanks to Ninja Captain Alex for inventing this blogfest.

 

Beyond the Internet: Week 35 Published Family Histories

Beyond the Internet

This is Week 35 in my Beyond the Internet series in which I explore the sources of information beyond our computer screens and the topic is Published Family Histories.

In the course of this series we’ve mainly been talking about primary records, those original documents created contemporaneously with the event. Published family histories are of course secondary documents and like all such documents need to be assessed for the accuracy and merit of their research, which is why source citations are so important.

Nevertheless it’s well worthwhile to check out the indexes to these books to see if your family name appears, however peripherally (mine usually remain elusive!). You may gain a lot or you may gain a little. You may even find someone has already done “all” the work on your family.  For example there are about 1500 individuals listed in the index to my family history Grassroots Queenslanders, the Kunkel Family. Many of those whose surname wasn’t Kunkel had no awareness of their descendancy from this family until I contacted them for the book.

So where do you look for these published family histories?

Well if they are formal publications, legal deposit requirements mean that there should be a copy in the National Library of Australia and the reference library state where the book was published, so that’s your first port of call. Only infrequently will you find them through booksellers as most aren’t going to be big money-spinners. Other places where you stand a good chance of finding them are regional family history societies or the Society of Australian Genealogists (SAG), or the Australian Institute of Genealogical Studies (AIGS).  Australian family historians are also fortunate that there’s a publication called Australian Family Histories by Ralph Reid, which provides a bibliography and index of family histories known to be published in Australia.

So to summarise, you can look for published family histories in these places:

  1. your national library (legal deposit)
  2. your state reference library (legal deposit)
  3. your local/state family history library
  4. the family history library where your ancestors lived
  5. a national family history society eg SAG or AIGS.
  6. a publication which may summarise all family histories published.

 Have you had any success with discoveries in a published family history? If so, why not share with all of us either in the comments or on your blog.

Library Loot: Migration experiences and learning Gaelic

Once again I’m following in the footsteps of Julie from Angler’s Rest and reporting in on my recent Library Loot.

When I pick books up from the library I’m less selective than when I’m splashing my own cash: I figure that I can try something new and even if I’m not rapt in it, then it doesn’t really matter. On the other hand sometimes I get lucky and discover something that really appeals to me.

Two books from the Palmerston Library which I’ve read recently  might be of some interest to my readers and fellow family history junkies.

Titanic Lives

Titanic Lives may seem like it will be yet another beat-up about the well-known sinking of the Titanic, but it actually offers a much deeper perspective.  The author, Richard Davenport-Hines, is an historian and biographer and his skills shine through as he writes about how the passengers on Titanic, and their lives, were a microcosm of, and reflection of, life in the era. He also documents the sources behind his story. What I most liked about the book is that it personalises the saved and the lost: they become real people not just “steerage” or “rich”. I wasn’t especially interested in the wealthy Astors, Wideners or Guggenheims but there were riches indeed in the stories of those in 2nd class or steerage/3rd class passengers.

If your ancestors emigrated in this time frame (early 20th century) there is much in this book to illuminate your ancestor’s travel and migration experience as well as the challenges of gaining entry to the USA through Ellis Island. The author also devotes a chapter to the crew of the Titanic, providing great insights into the working lives, and safety hazards, of the merchant seaman. As I have several of these in my family this chapter was very interesting on the responsibilities of stewards and firemen. Admittedly my ancestors were working on rather less glamorous ships than the Titanic but nonetheless there’s useful information there.  I found this book very interesting and learnt a good deal from it. This is not just another reiteration of the story of a major tragedy.

Home with Alice: A Journey in Gaelic Ireland

This book might be of interest to my readers who are keen Irish researchers with its exploration of Gaelic-speaking Ireland and the role, and threats to long-term survival, of the language.

When I picked the book up at the library I thought it might be another version of Brigid by Australian author, Jill Blee, which I had enjoyed for its focus on Co Clare. In fact this story had little in common with Brigid, despite the nominal role of the author’s aunt Alice in his journeying to Ireland’s Gaeltacht districts. I personally found Alice’s interventions contrived and unnecessary other than to explain the author’s initial decision to learn Irish.

Author Steve Fallon is a journalist and, inter alia, a travel writer for Lonely Planet, and at times the book takes on the tenor of a guide book. However I enjoyed learning more about the challenges of Irish as a language, especially as at one point I’d thought of learning it myself.  If anything the book convinced me this was a delusional aspiration due to the language’s complexity. I learnt that there were differences between the various dialects within the Gaeltacht regions, the new acceptance of Irish as a fashionable language with the rise of the Celtic Tiger, and the invasiveness of English into the Gaelic expressions.

It’s always a pleasure, too, reading a book which describes places you may have visited so that you can visualise where he’s talking about, whether Connemara, Kerry or Donegal. The impact of Gaelic television and radio also reminded me of the significance of Australia’s own ethnic broadcaster, SBS.

I do find the Irish-American tendency to identify as “Irish” a bit strange. While I too have an Irish passport like the author, and have many branches of Irish ancestry as well as a love of Ireland, my mongrel Australian ancestry means I feel it would be inaccurate and presumptuous to call myself Irish. Apart from the significance of the Catholic church to Irish emigrants in both countries, the experience of being a descendant of Irish emigrants in Australia seems to me to be quite different from that in “America”.

The Tin Ticket

The Tin Ticket[i] was one of my purchases from Gould Genealogy at the Qld Expo recently. I selected it because while I have no convicts in my own tree I thought it would be an interesting read.

In essence the book aims to illustrate the life experiences of three female convicts who were sentenced to transportation to Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania) for seven to ten years in the 1830s. Two were Scottish teenagers who’d been living on the streets for some time, Agnes McMillan and Janet Houston. The other was Ludlow Tedder, a literate housekeeper who’d been sentenced for pawning her employer’s silverware. Ludlow’s young daughter Arabella was also sent out with her.

All three were confined to the Cascades Female Factory for part of their sentence and were there for some overlapping periods.

Pros

I found the book interesting for what I learned about the horrors of Newgate Prison in London and the conditions at the Cascades. It is appalling to think how little clothing and food these women were given, the shockingly unsanitary conditions under which they lived, and the double standards of the time. The story of Elizabeth Fry’s work to improve their conditions at Newgate was also interesting. I’d liked to have had more information on life as a female convict towards the end of transportation era to see what conditions had changed: the nod to Irish convict Bridget Mulligan was to my mind cursory and subject to stereotyping.

From our family’s perspective, the references to Oatlands in central Tasmania were also informative as Mr Cassmob’s Irish convict, Denis Collins, was there for part of his sentence.

Cons

As a reader I found this book difficult and “stumbling” to read. The writing style was excessively florid with superfluous adjectives at every turn, and some phrases repeated ad infinitum, in a way which worked against the story as a whole.  I didn’t need to be told more than once or twice that Agnes was a “grey-eyed girl” or that she came from Glasgow, nor did I need the words “convict maids” to be always conjoined. The hyperbole made me sceptical about the accuracy of the content and would have benefited from a severe editing. I also found it irritating to read Americanisms in a book written about Australia and the UK. It does highlight how important it is to have a local reader do at least one edit.

These convict women were strong and resilient, whatever their faults and convictions, and I’d have liked to have known even more detail about their lives after gaining their Tickets of Leave as this is when they contributed to the development of Australia. No doubt this was partly due to the lack of documentary evidence for this period of their lives, in marked contrast to the detail from their convict period.

Summary: Worth the read to learn about life as a female convict in the early-mid 19th century, and of special interest to anyone with ancestors who may have been at Newgate or the Cascades Female Factory in Hobart.  A more balanced, edited writing style would have been more convincing rather than leaving me wondering about the validity of some of the statements.

You may also be interested in an article by the author in from The Huffington Post this week about Cascades and its female convicts.

[i] Swiss, Deborah J. The Tin Ticket: The Heroic Journey of Australia’s Convict Women. New York, Berkley, 2010.

Foreign Correspondence and why I am Australian

Spurred on by Kristin’s request for some Australian novels, I’ve recently been re-reading some of the novels on my Australian Reading List (and the additions in the comments). So far I’ve read A Town Like Alice, They’re a Weird Mob, Harland’s Half Acre and The True History of the Kelly Gang (can’t believe I read about Ned Kelly!). What’s particularly struck me is how strange it seems to read stories set in a geographical background that is familiar. Somehow reading “foreign” novels is normal, whereas a story set in my Australian hometown seems quite out of the ordinary. Perhaps more than anything it tells you of the cultural dysjunction with which we have traditionally lived.

The other day I picked up Foreign Correspondence by award-winning author and journalist/foreign correspondent, Geraldine Brooks. Geraldine grew up in Sydney in the 1960s and while there’s about a five year time difference from my own experience, so much of what she talks about is familiar. Her experience of living in Sydney’s western suburbs is so much starker than my own in Brisbane although the tightness of the community and a sense of its potential claustrophobia is similar. Much of Australia’s cultural attitudes of the 1960s come through in her writing, some overtly and other aspects more indirectly. She speaks too of the big events and issues of the era including the Vietnam war and the impact of Gough Whitlam’s election as Prime Minister.

Her health in childhood affected her schooling and how she interacted with others. She speaks very much as one who couldn’t wait to leave Australia and see what the big wide world had to offer and until she reached adulthood, she used pen pals as her gateway to the world. Nearly 30 years later she wonders what happened to those “foreign correspondents”. She traces them in the US, Middle East and France ultimately concluding that in fact her early life was not quite as circumscribed as she thought and that despite her many successes, at the time of writing this story she gained satisfaction from living a life not unlike the village-based life of her former French pen friend.

Her experiences made me reflect on my own experiences. My suburb also had a significant post-war immigration with people from Czechoslovakia, Poland, the Netherlands, Yugoslavia, Malta….. They were recent immigrants and many of the adults spoke little English. Playing with their children taught me indirectly about different cultural attitudes, tolerance for others and the language challenges. We never really knew of their lives before they came to Australia but their very presence in our daily lives opened the world’s doors: a pivotal influence in my life. Like the author I also had pen friends- three in the USA at different times and one in Holland. Also like her I’ve sometimes wondered where life took them. (Are you out there Patsy Kiwala, Carole Dzurban, Connie Cundiff and Ria Fyn van Draat?)

Warriors at the Highlands Show, Goroka, PNG 1972.

Reading a book like this, which fits closely with one’s own experiences, raises questions about life differences. My first thought was that while I had always desperately wanted to travel, I never expected or wanted to live the life of an expatriate. Only one or two of our friends from university made the sea voyage to England to work, perhaps because many of us met our life partners at uni. It’s a paradox that when thinking of living “overseas” and the life of an expatriate, my focus remains on the UK. This is ironic because for nearly a decade I was an expatriate in Papua New Guinea, a country which was vastly different to anything that would have been experienced in Europe, despite its dominant Australian overlay. London would probably have been less of a shock.

With cheaper and faster flights world-wide it’s now common for our children’s generation to live and work overseas. Many parents (including us) have one or more children living at vast distances from them. Many  Australian young adults make the pilgrimage to live and work around the world. Most of them probably return eventually, but others live elsewhere for the rest of their lives: we are a peripatetic nation.

A centuries-old ghost gum in the East McDonnell Ranges, NT

There is a book by Nikki Gemmell called “Why you are Australian”, written to her children who had been growing up in London until the family made the reverse migration to Australia. Although some of it seems over the top or idealised, she does evoke so much about being Australian.

Why am I Australian? Apart from those five generations of Queenslanders who’ve gone before me, the reasons are based in country almost in the indigenous sense. When you return from overseas, the first thing that hits you is the light. The brightness of the colours almost hurts your eyes after the grey skies of northern countries. Perhaps that’s why the birds are so often colourful too –they have to compete. The sheer expanse of the sky and its vivid blue on its many clear days. The ocean of stars in the sky at night, spanned by the white haze of the Milky Way, more startling in the bush or over the desert. The Southern Cross tracking its way across the night sky spinning on its southerly axis.  The red desert colour, the roar of the ocean waves breaking on long stretches of white sand or the red beachside cliffs of north-western Australia. The starkness of our bush, and what foreigners see as its emptiness and isolation. Storm clouds over the Tropical north in the Wet Season, all sound and drama. The geological patterns stretching from shore to shore, across thousands of kilometres so that the country around Mt Isa will remind you of the Red Centre or parts of Western Australia. The ancient rock formations and the centuries-old ghost gums. For so long we saw ourselves as a young country when in reality we’re as old as time, deceived by the absence of buildings to declare man’s presence yet in caves around the country there’s ancient artgoing back thousands of years.

Floodplains, billabongs and aged melaleucas in the Wet.

I remember once a distant Irish cousin asking me if I was Australian or Irish. It was a genuine question but I confess I was both bewildered and astonished. For me it was a “no brainer”, I’m an Aussie through and through, much as I love visiting my ancestral places. You won’t (usually) find me beating the patriotic drum, flying a flag at every turn sets my teeth on edge, and those stickers saying “if you don’t love it, leave” make me want to scream (do they never criticise someone they love? I doubt it). But yes, I’m an Australian to my core. Funny how a book can make you want to declare your sense of belonging.

I wrote this story a week ago but hadn’t posted it. Last night soon after it was uploaded I was reading recent posts by a young Aussie blogger I follow at A Big Life.  Living in Bavaria she talks about being caught between two countries and the pull of home – the expatriate’s dilemma. Two of her reflective posts are here and here.

You can see other photos of the Top End of Australia on my Tropical Territory blog which shows just how beautiful this part of the country can be. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while you’ll have seen some of the magnificent east coast country.