Book Review: ‘Reunion, A Search for Ancestors,’ by Ryan Littrell

reunion coverOn Facebook a couple weeks ago, I saw an ad for the book Reunion by Ryan Littrell. Its subtitle is “A Search for Ancestors,” and it definitely caught my eye. (Isn’t Facebook good at targeting its ads!)

I read about the book and then impulse-ordered it.

Turns out it’s a good book. I’m glad I did.

I was hooked early on by this passage about looking at a photograph of two nineteenth-century ancestors; this passage almost could have been pulled out of my own head. I think about things like this. Do you?

You can’t see in their eyes what you see in a friend who trades a knowing glance with you, because these ancestors never had the chance to know you, and so they never spoke of you, they never cared about you. What would they have thought of you if they were around today? Would they invite you in, like you were some long lost grandchild of theirs, or would they be polite and distant, the way they might treat a strange new acquaintance?

Each of us could ask these questions, but we know that there can be no response. We were never given the chance to know all the ways he would look after us, or how she would smile at us, or how they might have spoken of us, even when it was just the two of them. Our ancestors are never going to return our calls.

But spookily, they’re here. Their DNA is our DNA, in us right now, influencing everything our bodies and minds do….

I recommend this book to anyone who is curious about – or is currently researching, or ever has or will research – his or her family’s genealogy. Littrell brings the reader along as he researches, travels, meets distant cousins and uncovers the history of his family. It’s a great look at, and example of, how to do good genealogical research, and it tells an interesting story, as well.

He includes some Scottish Highlands and clan history. This book will be of special interest to anyone who traces their roots to the Scottish Highlands, and to people descended from McDonalds/MacDonalds or McDaniels/MacDaniels. Though neither of those categories apply to me, and I totally enjoyed it, too.

The synopsis:

Where do I come from? That question sets Ryan Littrell on a journey that crosses centuries and many miles. An anonymous letter, found at the bottom of a box of black-and-white pictures, reveals the first clues about his grandmother’s family story, and soon those clues lead him to a country graveyard and a long-lost cousin. Then faded names in old books, along with a DNA surprise, unearth one more generation, and yet another. And as one hint leads to the next, from the 19th century back into the 18th, he discovers his family’s place in a people’s tragic struggle-a tale of heartbreak, betrayal, and unfailing strength. A real-life account, Reunion shows how our ancestors just might still be a part of us, and how our story began long before we were even born.Screen Shot 2013-01-28 at 12.06.26 PM

Click for an interview Ryan Littrell did with the family history blog Moultrie Creek Books.

In that interview he discusses one part of his story that I find especially interesting: How he used DNA testing, our newest tool in the genealogy arsenal:

Q. What was your most surprising discovery related to this project?

A. That’s a tough question, because there were so many discoveries along the way. But if I had to pick one, it would be that email revealing my uncle’s DNA results: Each person who matched my uncle’s DNA was descended from a single family that lived for many generations in one particular spot in the Scottish Highlands. My whole life, I’d had no clue where this part of my family had come from. But suddenly, with one cheek swab from Uncle Chuck, we knew the truth.

Reunion is an interesting and well-written book; recommended. If you’re interested, buy the paperback here or download the Kindle version here.

If you’d like to know more, here’s a short Ancestry.com article by Ryan Littrell about his family history search.

You can follow Ryan Littrell and learn more about him and his book at Facebook.

As always, I hope you’ll come back here and let me know if you read the book, so we can talk about it some more!

 

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Saving Face, & Voice, & Stories

My father died in 1983, when I was 20 and he was only 50.

I don’t know of any recordings of his voice that still survive, but I’d sure love to have one.

He died way before we were all walking around with cameras capable of recording video and audio in our pockets (or our hands).  Apple II

How he would have loved this digital age, by the way. Because of him, my family was an early adopter of the Apple II, with its Pong game and all, but really my dad missed about all of this digital era. He was a “techie” type, and there’s no doubt in my mind that he would have loved it.

But nowadays, with all this readily available technology all around us, making it so easy, do we remember to videotape/audiotape our parents? Our grandparents? How often do we record our family moving around and talking, so we can show our kids and grandkids later? So that later they will still be real people, just like us, instead of just names on a page? So we ourselves can see and hear them again decades from now, like magic?

And if we do, I don’t know if we always make sure to back up the recording and store it separately. And put it on a DVD, and label it. Does everybody think to make a few copies, and give them to different family members, or at least store them in different places, so they don’t all perish in the same disaster?

It’s so easy to do, whether casually or professionally (if you don’t have the time, know-how or energy, we can help you with it here at Talk Story Press). And it’s priceless to have later.

Verlyn Klinkenborg (is there a better name, by the way?) writes in the New York Times about getting his old voice back, after surgery to remove a papilloma on his vocal cord. And about voices that “recover memory and emotion and loss itself.”

What would we know if we could hear the voice of Cleopatra? How odd would Napoleon’s Corsican accent sound to modern French speakers? And what if we had two minutes of the voice of Shakespeare, who managed to leave so little of his personal self behind?

We might feel awe at hearing these voices, but very likely the recordings would be mere artifacts, overwhelmed by legend, deed and word. And these figures would still be strangers. It would be nothing like hearing again the intimate sound of a voice that has gone missing in your own life, a voice that recovers memory and emotion and loss itself.

Read his whole New York Times essay So Many Snapshots, So Few Voices Saved.

And don’t forget to take advantage of this great technology we have all around us, and record your family members – their faces, voices and stories. Someday, you, and others who come along later, will be so glad you did.

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Post-Hoopla Report

Leslie Lang, Talk Story PressThe hoopla of the holidays has died down, the week-long flu my family “enjoyed” shortly after New Year’s has ended, and here we are.

I enjoy the holidays, but am always ready to get back to Real Life when they are over. (I did not much enjoy the flu.)

We’re on to a new calendar with what always feels like a new, fresh start. The fireworks are over and now it’s about sitting down and achieving. Anything is possible!

I started the New Year – or ended the last one, actually – by reorganizing. I repurposed a couple rooms in my home and switched them, meaning my Talk Story Press office ended up in a new spot and got a major restructuring at the same time. It’s a better situation and I like it.

As I moved things, I cleared through all my office files, while also rearranging them so they are more organized for how my work has evolved. I’m happy to have done this. When my space and work is well-organized, so too is my head.

And now I’m back to it. My plate is filled with:

  • Writing/editing/consulting for businesses (for instance, I still manage and edit the active Hamakua Springs blog, and do ghostwriting/social media/other writing for businesses, as well),
  • Editing (at present I’m editing a memoir for an interesting, long-time Hilo resident, and a small self-help book for another client)
  • Writing the occasional magazine article, and
  • Working on personal and family history projects.

The personal and family history projects are always so interesting and satisfying. I’ve just finished interviews with an older woman whose son and daughter-in-law have commissioned a book about her life. Interviews with her reveal that her father had fought for Japan in the “Russo-Japanese war” before immigrating to Hawai‘i during sugar plantation days; and that her parents always worried about being shipped off to a concentration camp during World War II (fortunately, they were not).

Another project in the works is a book I’m doing for a client whose father died unexpectedly. By interviewing his siblings, mother and daughter, I am creating a narrative of her father’s life; put together with photos, it will end up as a lovely, printed book.

I have a couple projects for my own family in the works, as well. For decades I’ve gathered family stories and pictures and done genealogical research, but it’s no good to anyone if it’s just scraps of paper in a file drawer (or two), right?

That’s why I’ve gone into this personal and family history business with such delight. I find it very satisfying to help a family capture the stories that tell how it all unfolded to get them where they are now.

Because otherwise, anything you know about where your family came from, and how your grandmother came to be the person she is, and all the rest of it, it all just sort of poofs into the air and is gone when you are.

Maybe your father has told you a handful of stories about his childhood; but how many stories? Four? How many of those you pass down? One? None? It’s not too late.

Do you know where your grandparents came from, and why? Maybe your children aren’t interested now, but they might be later in their lives, when there’s no one around anymore to tell them. Or their (future) children or grandchildren might want to know – and even if you never meet them, they will know you and love you for having preserved that information for them.

Taking raw material and turning it into a published book that can sit on a shelf, available to anyone who’s interested as it passes through the generations – this is a delight. Whether it’s for my family or someone else’s, it feels so good to preserve these stories of ours.

If you’d like to hear more about my writing, and maybe read an occasional bit from a current project (shared with permission), please sign up for my quarterly newsletter. There is a Talk Story Press newsletter coming out soon. And never fear, your email address is always safe with me. I’ll never share it.

Also, once in awhile I offer a special deal on a personal history project through my newsletter, so sign up at right to keep in the know.

How about you – are you all organized and rejuvenated for a new year? Is it time to work on a part of your family history, or the story of a parent or grandparent, that needs to be preserved and printed? I’d be happy to discuss how we could work together in 2013.

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Memoir Reunites Cousins Separated 70 Years Ago

This story, from the Miami Herald, is an amazing one — and it all happened because one of these first cousins, separated by the Holocaust when they were young boys, wrote a memoir that the other one happened to see. What a dramatic illustration of the power of writing down your family history!

Do you have a family story you need to preserve? Contact me and we’ll brainstorm about it.

Cousins who survived Holocaust reunite in Broward after almost 70 years

The two men, who last saw each other in a concentration camp, fulfilled a dream Sunday in Tamarac as they met again, thanks to a memoir that one wrote.

[Photo deleted]

Leo Adler, left, looks at a picture of his mother with Leon Schagrin. Adler recently found his first cousin, Schagrin, after Adler saw this photo of Schagrin’s mother in a memoir that Schagrin wrote and realized their mothers were sisters. On Sunday they met for the first time in 70 years during the South Florida Holocaust survivors Purim party in Tamarac. Photo by Joshua Prezant

BY ELINOR J. BRECHER

For almost seven decades, Leo Adler looked for the cousin he knew only as Lemel, last seen in a Nazi death camp in 1944.

This Lemel, the son of his mother’s sister, would be Adler’s only living close relative. Everyone else died in the Holocaust.

Adler, a Hallandale Beach/Long Island snowbird, couldn’t remember his cousin’s last name, so his searches always hit a dead-end.

But in late February, a friend gave Adler a copy of another South Florida survivor’s memoir. She figured he would be interested because the author, Leon Schagrin, hailed from a town in Poland close to Adler’s native Tarnow….

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Record a Personal History & Stop the World

When I read this excellent essay at NPR’s website, I thought: That is why we take the time and make the effort to record people’s stories, their personal histories. Because it’s the stories that keep our parents, our grandparents, our siblings who died too early and cherished friends and great-grandparents and others from winking out of our memories.

From npr.org:

September 20, 2010

by ROBERT KRULWICH 

Now that it’s almost fall and there is a hint again of things passing, I think about a boy who once looked out a window, and wistful about time slipping by, he made it stop. Yes, he stopped time.

I love this story. It was told by Loren Eiseley, an anthropologist and one of my favorite science writers. Eiseley grew up in Nebraska and one day, when he was in high school, he happened to glance out the window and saw a junkman heading up a city street.

In 1923, junk men collected potentially valuable garbage and hauled it off for resale. This particular junkman, Eiseley wrote, had “a broken old horse plodding before a cart laden with bags of cast-off clothing, discarded furniture and abandoned metal. The horse’s harness was a makeshift combination of straps mended with rope. The bearded man perched high in the driver’s seat looked as though he had been compounded from the assorted junk heap in the wagon bed.” 

A few moments later, when the junkman and his wagon were about to round a corner at the intersection of R and 14th streets, Loren says he “leaned from a high school window a block away, absorbed as only a sixteen year old may sometimes be with the sudden discovery of time. It is all going, I thought with the bitter desperation of the young confronting history. No one can hold us. Each and all, we are riding into the dark.”

That is when he stopped the world….  READ THE REST

This story fascinated me, and well-illustrates why I help people organize, record and publish the personal or family histories that are most important to them. It is so satisfying to help people keep their stories from disappearing. So the people in their stories stay alive for the people still to come.

So they don’t wink out.

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Personal Historian

Before It’s Too Late!

personal history, personal historian, Leslie Lang, writer, Hawaii writer

Have you dreamed about recording a parent’s story? Or writing about the history of your family, and the path it took over the decades – now, while your grandparents can still tell you what they know? How about documenting the history of a company you built up from nothing, or recording the life of a long-beloved family home?

Lots of people consider such a project, but often don’t actually get around to doing it — either because they lack the time, and/or, very often, because they don’t have the know how or specific skills to pull it all together. And once someone is gone and it’s too late, there is often such a feeling of regret.

This is where a personal historian comes in.

Personal historians are storytellers, often (but not always) hired by a younger generation to capture, organize and preserve the stories of an older one. They are experts who know how to carry such a project to completion.

The Association of Personal Historians defines a personal history as:

…the story of a life, or stories from a life. It may be a memoir, a tribute, a life story, an autobiography, a biography, a video biography, or an oral history. It may also be a legacy letter or ethical will, expressing one’s values, wishes, regrets, observations about life, lessons learned, and so on. Many personal histories are books, a growing number are captured on video, and some are still simply audio.

Personal historians are creative professionals who help both celebrities and “ordinary people” tell their life stories. A personal historian may be engaged to help individuals, families, communities, or organizations preserve memories, images, voices, stories, and histories – often (but not always) in narrative form.

personal historian, personal history, Hawaii writerAs a personal historian, I use my many, many years of personal interviewing skills to sit down with someone and glean the story they have within them and want to preserve. They review everything, and then I put it all together in a professional, finished format.

Your stories and photos can end up as a high-quality, professionally designed book for your family or organization.

Another option is to put together a video project, using whatever combination of recorded audio, video clips, photos, musics, effects and narration work. The result is a polished multimedia project you can share by computer or disk, show at a celebration, memorial or other special get-together, and keep forever.

Why hire me, specifically? I have decades of experience working as an interviewer, writer, journalist, author, editor, cultural anthropologist and historian. I am a digital “junkie” who enjoys putting professional projects together on the computer. My friends say I am a Storyteller.

Please let me know if you have a project in mind and would like to discuss it.

And if you’re not ready to do your personal history yet, I’d like to encourage you to sign up for my quarterly newsletter. You’ll also get email notifications when I post here to the blog. It’s a way to get more comfortable with who I am, and the work I do, before jumping into a project of your own. (Do not be afraid! Girl Scout Promise: I will never abuse your email address, and I work hard to make my monthly newsletter interesting and worth reading.) 

Thanks for checking out my website, and I’d love to talk to you about a personal history project when you’re ready.

top photo © Mikle15 | Dreamstime.com  / middle photo © Karin Hildebrand
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Why Personal History Projects Are Important

This documentary video of a woman telling her grandfather’s story is well worth a watch.

In it, Jonna Doolittle Hoppes gives a presentation on the WWII event named for her grandfather, the “Jimmy Doolittle Raid,” at the Historic Flight Foundation.

It’s an interesting story in itself; a fascinating piece of history. But at the beginning and end of the video, she really captures why personal history projects matter.

She nails why we should take the time to tell our stories, whether we connect with a personal historian who will put that story into book or video form, jot it down ourselves, or send it as a series of letters to the grandchildren.

I’m glad I got to see this.

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‘America Writes Home’

mailbox2America Writes Home is a website with a wonderful collection of some existing pre-1920s letters, giving a flavor of that time before iPhones and email.

They are indexed by state, for the most part. Really fun to poke around in. So many stories!

Do you have old letters? Have you thought about how to preserve them so others, now or in the future, can enjoy and learned from them too? There are suggestions at this website.

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Remembering & Being Remembered

sandStefani Twyford is a video biographer in Houston, and she is also a wonderful writer and thinker. I just rediscovered her blog post about an African proverb, and it haunts me a little bit:

…The proverb recognizes two spirits. “Sasha are spirits known by someone still alive, while Zamani are spirits not known by someone currently alive.” According to James Loewen in his book Lies My Teacher Told Me: “The recently departed whose time overlapped with people still here are the Sasha, the living dead. They are not wholly dead, for they live on in the memories of the living … when the last person knowing an ancestor dies, that ancestor leaves the Sasha for the Zamani, the dead.”

Walsh’s use of the proverb was in illustrating the power of oral and personal history. As a Personal Historian, I spend a lot of time educating people on the power and value of leaving your story for future generations. As long as people are alive and can pass your stories on to future generations, you will retain some degree of immortality. But like the game Telephone, each iteration of the story becomes less and less reliable and more anecdotal until what is left after a few generations is, if you are lucky, merely a name on a genealogical chart and some mention of characteristics… Read the rest

“When the last person knowing an ancestor dies, that ancestor leaves the Sasha for the Zamani, the dead.” Wow. It’s a powerful way of thinking. And it does make you think about keeping track of your family stories. Ask about them, and then write them down!

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Glued To The Screen

p8125460Here is a great reminder of just one of the reasons we should take the time to document, in one way or another, our personal stories – and, especially, those of our elder family members.

It’s personal historian Stanley Dalnekoff describing the first time his client’s family watched the two-hour audiovisual personal history he created about the grandfather:

The first viewing of the production at his home was in front of his wife, children, and two of his grandchildren. The most interesting reaction was that of his grandchildren who sat fascinated. They had heard some of his tales over the years but for the first time they were able to get a true picture of just what an incredibly resilient and fascinating person their grandfather is. They also received a lesson on how one can survive in the most difficult circumstances and indeed find the strength to thrive. Indeed this is the legacy he is handing down to future generations of his family. They, in turn, now have a physical record  to hand down to their offspring. Read the rest

Our histories are so easily lost track of, and what a shame that is every time it happens.

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