Stories incorporating the author's family history are captivating me, lately. I love to see how writers weave that history into their narrative.
For those of us who have spent years honing the genealogical research skills of the process, we tend to focus on the precision of the verification—details of documentation, ad nauseam. While those skills may be admirable in genealogical circles, they're not quite so compelling to the general public. If we want our family's stories to have a reception less icy than the dreaded "my eyes glaze over" response, we need to branch out and see how those with more writing skills than genealogical research skills handle the project.
The book I read last month—The Stonecutter's Aria—definitely was presented with a writer's flair. Artfully crafted, the story presented the case for one Italian immigrant family with a tender touch. The handling of the tale, though, verged on fictionalization, somehow riling my internal genealogist enough to interrupt my passive acceptance of the narrative.
This month, I want to see how another writer dealt with sharing his family's story—Oh Beautiful, published in 2010 by journalist John Paul Godges. While this author may see himself as being in the same vein of memoir writing as the last author I mentioned—who saw the writing of her family's history as personally therapeutic—his claim of "group therapy" for his family aside, his was a masterful effort to blend the story of his immigrant parents with the disparate legacies bestowed by them on each of his siblings.
Perhaps seeking my cues from similar works of professional writers may seem intimidating. After all, this book was written by a man who does this sort of work for a living—and yet, he says it took him ten years, from start to finish, to produce the book.
Being a professional does have its up side. After the launching of this indie volume—Godges published using CreateSpace—the book received enough acclaim to make any writer envious. He made the rounds on several writers' blogs, discussing the-writing-of and related topics. He even made a (predictable) cameo appearance on the family history focused blogger Lynn Palermo's The Armchair Genealogist.
Using his family's dynamics as illustration, he used his manuscript to demonstrate his theme:
To be an American in the fullest sense of the word means to discover oneself as an individual within a community—and to sustain that tension, to the detriment of neither the individual nor the community.
This idea grew from his reflections on how different each of the siblings in his family—the children of a Polish immigrant and the daughter of Italian immigrants—turned out to be. That became not only the metaphor for supporting his theme, but the concept upon which he hung the subtext of various spans of American history. Even the titles of his chapters leaned upon that concept, taking their cues from such eras as the Great War, the Depression, and various episodes within the social turmoil of the twentieth century.
Oh, Beautiful is not for the faint of heart. Godges tightly weaves that theme throughout all 485 pages of the text, then augments it with endnotes, bibliography and lots of family photographs. However, as he, himself, pointed out, "there is an awful lot of pain in this book." Though he does admit having author John Steinbeck as his role model, his choice to present that pain as starkly and unembellished as he does comes from that realization about life. As he mentioned in his interview with Lynn Palermo,
The most important parts of our lives also happen to be the most painful parts of our lives. When we keep those stories of pain to ourselves, either intentionally or unintentionally, we deny ourselves a great deal of wisdom that we can also pass down to our children.
For the not-so-stouthearted among readers, Amazon offers a "look inside" for a reading test drive. Google Books offers three sample chapters below their listing of reviews.
I'm not even sure how I first heard about Oh Beautiful, but I knew right away I needed to read it. As far behind in my reading as I am—I often am possessed with that "gotta read it" spirit, but not so much with the follow-through—it is probably a good thing that the weather here has finally turned to that curl-up-with-a-book kind of season. It will probably take several of those sessions—and multiple cups of coffee and hot chocolate—to get through all five hundred pages.