From Downton Abbey to Dallas, from The Sopranos to Days of Our Lives, family sagas keep us thirsting for the next chapter. Maybe it is to escape our own lives, but I don’t think so. I think it is to escape the loneliness of our own crises, to recognize them in the lives of others—after all, if they’re someone else’s problems, they’re only drama. Better yet if we find reflections of ourselves in the aristocracy of England or the American mafia, for those worlds provide distance enough to make us laugh. And laughter gives perspective and heals.
I was amazed, in my own life, when my daughter—now grown and a professional woman—asked for old family photographs and poured over them. Who are they? What did they do? What are their stories? And I was chagrined that I knew so little. I know the are stories there—the evangelical preacher who was my mother’s father, the grandmother I never knew who bore him five children then died young of cancer, the youngest who bore a half-Native American son who returned to his tribe. Tantalizing bits and a few anecdotes. Not enough and maybe that’s what turned me to making them up.
In my second novel, The Inheritors, Alicia Barron searches an abandoned Chicago mansion for her mother’s family and finds herself. In my most recent novel, Home Fires, Myra Benning seeks certainty in her husband’s family’s secrets but finds only more profound questions. In both, the heroines, once immersed in family stories, suspend judgment, grow in understanding. I think one of the most profound examples of this process is Jodi Picoult’s The Storyteller, where the heroine resolves her own agonies by slowly gathering the stories of her holocaust survivor grandmother and the commander of the concentration camp where she was interred. That is a journey few fiction writers would undertake, but Picoult has the courage to ride it to its end.
Non-fiction journeys into family histories are equally impressive and the results of these more personal journeys are, as in fictional journeys, a greater understanding of oneself. In a recent blog , Heidi Thomas, author of Cowgirl Dreams and Follow the Dream talked about the role of family history in her fiction and will soon give us the third volume of such a journey in non-fictional form. Meanwhile, we’ll have to satisfy our thirst with rereading Little Women, The Little House on the Prairie, The Forsythe Saga or other favorites from our pasts.