Folio Friday - Family History as Therapy?
It's Folio Friday and time to share what books we've been reading.
One of the themes that run through both my family history and that of my husband's family history is that of abandonment: children being abandoned by their parents in orphanages or foster homes or similar. I have often wondered about the psychological damage that is passed down from generation to generation as a result and or the social outcomes for the children. If I had the intestinal fortitude for undertaking any more university study, this is the area to which I would devote a thesis.
Betty O'Neill has taken on this subject and dealt with it most engagingly and sensitively. Something that is required when dealing with family history and a subject that is deeply personal to her lived experience. The book is prefaced with many recommendations from other authors and indeed the trouble with reading books like this one is that, invariably, they make you want to read more books! There are seventeen pages of books listed in the Bibliography at the back! There is no help for me.
O'Neill hooked me from the get-go on the first page with the line:
"The first time I met ... my father, I was nineteen."
This book is fractured in terms of genre. Yes, it is a memoir but it is also a detective story or mystery of the kind that genealogists or family historians love best. It is interesting on so many levels. As the title indicates, the subject of the book is an absent father and the author’s desire to discover why her father left her and her mother a week or so after he arrived in Australia. The author had only brief contact with her father when she was 19 and he attempted to re-connect when she was a Uni student. The several meetings they had subsequently became disturbing and worrying, ultimately leading to another separation when her father returned to Poland in 1974. After her mother died, Betty decided to find out once and for all, her father’s story. And what a journey that became.
The thrill of the chase
As a family historian, I related strongly to the thrill of the chase, made even more interesting by the addition of a foreign country, the use of interpreters, the challenges of bureaucracy and so on. O’Neill is nothing if not intrepid and dogged in her pursuit of the truth. There is much to admire in this work. It certainly was a page-turner and I polished off the 300-page volume in about two days flat. I learned heaps from the author’s journey, particularly about Poland in the Second World War, of which I was alarmingly ignorant. Yes, improvements could be made. For example, it was disappointing to see the photos of her father’s prisoner card were virtually unreadable. I’m not sure if this is down to the quality of the print-run or the exigencies of gaining access to it in the first place which did not sound easy. But there was a map of where the concentration camps were where her father was held. Thank you.
What's the point of studying history?
The book is broken into three parts: the author’s childhood and meeting with her father for the first time as a young student, the trip to Poland to find any living relatives/friends and neighbours to search for the truth and finally a reconciliation with the truth and mapping of the way forward by the author which is truly impressive. What do we do with the truth once we know about it? What is the purpose of history or historical research? In this instance, a shift from a personal to community history and reflection on the consequences of war for families and descendants. Fabulous stuff. I commend it to you.