Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Required Reading for Would-Be Genealogists

Book Review: The Night Sky: A Journey From Dachau to Denver and Back by Maria Sutton

If one were to believe the television advertisements, tracing your family history is as simple as logging in to a website and clicking on a picture of a leaf. Archives will miraculously open to reveal that your great-grandfather was a private detective who lived next door to Henry Ford and invented the limited-slip differential. Who forgot to mention THAT?

Sadly, as Maria Sutton (and this author) can attest, genealogy is not that simple, even in the digital age. As she details in The Night Sky, Ms. Sutton's journey to find the father she never knew is a more accurate reflection of what a family history researcher actually goes through. The Night Sky is required reading for any would-be genealogist.

The first obstacle facing the new family historian is the reluctance of relatives. Every family has skeletons in the closet - or at least they believe they do. Even if those skeletons have decayed into dust, there are members of your family who will try to divert you from finding out "the truth about Uncle Joe", whose sin was too deep and dark to reveal. They mean well, they just don't want you to embarrass the family in your efforts to "dredge up" the past.

The second hurdle is the inaccuracy and unavailability of records. A tree full of leaves notwithstanding, not everything you see can be taken at face value. The index you are searching online is a transcription of a blurry and possibly misspelled handwritten record. Check and double-check your sources; don't mistake the tree for the leaves.

And finally, as Maria Sutton herself learned, the toughest roadblock to the truth is your own mindset. While you may want to believe your forefather (or mother) was a a local hero, for most of us it simply is not true. Just because they were alive while important events were happening does not mean they were involved in them; it's hard to be objective when it comes to your own ancestry.

The moral of The Night Sky is that no matter what you may have thought of them, and no matter how far from that perception they landed, your ancestors DID play an important part in life -- they made YOU possible. Maria Sutton's journey to find her family may not be the stuff TV commercials are made of, but it was worth the trip.