February 17, 2010

Writing Yourself into History

The small town near the ranch where I grew up is Lovell. It’s named after the rancher Henry Clay Lovell, who brought cattle into the area in 1879. My great grandparents, the Strongs, came into the area in 1894 and established a hotel and saloon. Other inhabitants included a black man by the name of Thaxton who ran a store. The Mormon community led by Abraham Woodruff moved in about 1900. Great Grandpa Strong liked to say, “I saw ‘em come over the hill.” The upstanding religious community who moved in cast a wary eye at the family saloon.

Apparently, the story goes, the town of Lovell was platted around the railroad, and all the land was owned by the Strongs and by other early families. The Mormons resented this and the money they would have to pay, what they felt was exorbitant, to have land around the main street, so one night they up and moved the town two blocks to the south.

One of the early industries in Lovell was a brick and tile factory, and the Strongs had shares in that factory. I don’t remember the exact history, but the factory went under and the Strongs were out a lot of money. They felt it was the consequence of some underhanded dealings.

Bad blood built up and my family had had enough. They moved 25 miles north to homestead along Crooked Creek. Great Grandpa Strong died about that time, so there ended up being three homesteads along the creek: Great Grandma who was called Ma Strong, my grandmother Bessie and her husband Billy Tillett, and sister Edna and her family.

When you read histories of the Lovell area, if the Strongs and Tilletts are mentioned, it’s as a footnote: the land for Lovell was purchased from Frank and Ellen Strong. The histories go right from the Lovell Ranch to the Mormon community. The histories after that are always told from the Mormon community’s point of view.

Not that I blame them. The Strongs and the Tilletts, for the most part, are a contrary contentious bunch. They weren’t joiners or particularly contributing members of the community; they were ~ and are ~ an antiestablishment and iconoclastic bunch. They were even known to bend the rules. Those stories of the Old West ~ my family lived them, but not from good upstanding citizen point of view. We were known as the outlaws out on the Crooked Creek. (This is probably why I like some of the work of William Faulkner so much.) Instead of religion or the community, the ranch was the organization my family paid tribute to.

And, though a number of them were educated at a university, my family never felt the urge to write themselves into history. I felt this keenly as a kid. I’d search vainly for mentions of my family, and they were never there. That’s one of the reasons, I think, I’ve always been an avid genealogy buff and an amateur historian.

This is also a reason I’m a writer. As a kid, I didn’t see myself or my family in “History.” I didn’t realize that histories were things that were written, that they were nothing more ~ or less ~ than point of view. I don’t know how old I was before I realized this. Not until I was an adult, for sure. So, not only did I feel that I didn’t have a voice personally ~ because I was the youngest of seven with parents busy working the ranch ~ but also I felt my family didn’t have a voice.

On a related note, I watched the first part of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s recent PBS work, Faces of America. What an absolutely fabulous series! (You can watch episodes online here.) I’m going immediately to see if I can find his other work. Faces of America takes 12 celebrities ~ two each from various backgrounds ~ and combines genealogical research with genome science to discover their background. The main takeaway is that everybody’s been doing it with everybody forever, and no one has a “pure” lineage. We are a melting pot. The show also makes you realize that history isn’t this disembodied thing; it’s your close relatives who actually lived through it. Finally, it reinforces what I said in this post that, when you’re creating a character, you need to think about his or her ancestors and how they affect your character.

What I’m Reading Today: A draft of a chapter from my friend Ken Olsen’s memoir. It’s the full meal deal ~ funny, heart-rending, passionate ~ yet it reads like a novel. I don’t know how many drafts he’s done, but it reads like he’s been working on it for years. Some lucky agent and publisher are going to be turning handsprings when they get it.

PS I got a form rejection on a query of the novel today, but my friend Pembroke got a request for a full!

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