Sunday, January 03, 2016

Family by Ian Frazier

Everyone's family is full of stories, both the ones that are told proudly and the ones that are whispered at best. Most of those only stick around for a generation or two, though -- stories from "Great-Great Grandpa Joe who fought at Bull Run" are sketchy and mythologized, unlike the detailed stories of people who are still around to correct mistakes.

The flourishing of self-publishing over the last decade or so has brought a lot of those stories into print, if not into the marketplace, as a thousand family elders write down their memories in hopes that the grandkids will actually read them. (Spoiler: they mostly don't read them.) In fact, just today my own two sons opened big boxes from my father, with bound histories of Wheelers going back several generations...and I expect they'll spend about as much time digging into those books as I have with the copies already cluttering up the top of my closet. (I'm not proud about this, but I have to admit the truth.)

So there's a lot of family histories out there -- a few relatively professional, from local historical societies about prominent families; an even fewer completely professional, about political dynasties and similarly major folks; and a whole lot of enthusiastic amateurs mostly writing up their own lives or the stories they heard when younger. But even the most bland, seemingly unliterary genre has surprising roots -- and so I finally come to Family, from the longtime New Yorker writer Ian Frazier.

Frazier researched Family through the early '90s -- he never precisely says so, but it's clear he was inspired to do after cleaning up the possessions of his parents, who died in 1987 and '88 -- and it was published in 1994. In retrospect, that's the last moment for a book purely like this one, based on shoe-leather research and physical documents and visiting real locations. A few years later, there would be and a hundred other tools, but Frazier was at the tail end of the pure era of country clerks and giant ledgers of baptismal records. A book like Family could be researched the same way now, but that would be an affectation -- doing it more slowly and tediously and (probably) badly, just to show it can still be done. Frazier was instead just working with the tools he had, as well as he could.

He begins his story roughly a hundred years back, at the dawn of the twentieth century. [1]At that point, almost all of his great-grandparents were alive and married and raising families, aged forty or fifty-something and settled. Luckily for Frazier, they were all in Ohio or Indiana -- Family is able to have a relatively tight geographical focus, and to talk about small-town Ohio almost as much as it's about the Fraziers and Wickhams and Hurshes and Bachmans that lived in those places. Frazier had spent long years as a New Yorker writer by this point, and clearly its mania for provable detail and deep research had marked him -- Family has sixteen pages of notes to explain how he knows the things he tells us about, and where the super-diligent reader could go look up much of it himself.

From there, he moves backward through the 19th century quickly, sketching what some of his ancestors were doing some of the time, and pausing for a longer look at their lives during the Civil War. (He notes that four-year span is the most extensively chronicled of any of his ancestor's lives, a bright hot moment that illuminated everything afterward.) He doesn't follow any of them back to their pre-North American lives; he's making Family the story of the lives of his people on this continent, and not the story of the places they came from or the things they fled. (It's a very American book, in that way, all about building businesses and connections and marriages and towns and raising children -- all of the standard mythology of the ever-advancing frontier.)

The back half of Family slowly sweeps forward through the twentieth century, telling the stories of how Frazier's grandparents grew up and met and married, and how they had children who did the same, and then about his own childhood and life as he works his way right up to the then-present day. The details are the point, of course, but I don't need to include the details here -- you each have similar stories and anecdotes from your won family, and you'll see something of yourselves and your lives if you ever decide to read Family yourself.

Note that this book is not called A Family or My Family or The Frazier Family -- it's just Family, the story of one group of related people, mostly in Ohio, over the past two hundred years that is also the story of Americans in general and of the lives we've all lived over that span. Frazier does keep it both specific and general, by telling real stories that we can all relate to because we know people like that, in our own families or looking back into history. It's not quite a social history of the USA, because it's too particular for that. But it aims in that direction, and paints an engrossing picture of who we've been and how we've lived over two centuries.

[1] January 1, 1901, because he can count.

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