Book Review: Tracing Your Ancestors’ Lives

Tracing Your Ancestors’ Lives: A Guide For Family Historians, by Barbara J. Starmans

Authors tend to make assumptions about their audience, and sometimes that assumption doesn’t work out. It is hard to blame the author for this book, at least in its entirety, as the author is clearly working under the assumption that she is writing for English family historians who have a strong interest in history from below. I have at other times commented on my ambivalent feelings about history from below–this particular book and many others like it tends to celebrate the media and forgetting that such information as we have about people exists for a reason. The reason why we have census and baptism records for many people is because of the power of the state on the one hand or the power of the church on the other hand, and neither of those, nor newspapers and other examples of media, are really examples of history from below, try as people might to think that is the case to justify their decision to dislike elite history and to try to claim this as some sort of alternative. The underlying issues with this book are not enough to make it worthless, but they certainly do undercut a significant portion of her message, at least, as is often the case with such matters.

This book is a little bit less than 200 pages and is divided into six fairly large chapters. The book begins with an introduction that discusses social history (1) and the approach of the author. This is followed by a chapter on people, family, and society, looking at questions of demographics, customs, drugs, and alcohol, questions of marriage and sexuality, and so on (2). After that the author writes a chapter on domestic affairs ranging from property to clothing and fashion to food and cooking and housekeeping (3). There is then a chapter on birth, life, health, and death, which are frequently matters that come up in historical documentation (4). After this the author discusses work, wages, and the economy, which looks at occupations as well as questions of social welfare and relief (5). Finally, the book ends with a discussion of community, religion, and government (6), as well as a conclusion, bibliography, and index. As might be expected, the author’s discussion is heavy on praise of the media and on the author’s interest and perspective of politics, which might be of limited interest to some readers.

Still, if I have some major questions about the legitimacy of the appeal of history from below that still depends on elite sources of information collected to serve elite interests, even if the people whose records exist are often ordinary and common people, the most mysterious aspect of this book is why is it to be found on the shelves in a suburban Oregon library. This book is not particularly useful to those who do not have a family history going back to Victorian England. Speaking personally, at least, the vast majority of my own ancestry from the British Isles left there in the seventeenth and eighteen centuries, and this book is of limited value in finding information from earlier periods where records were less prevalent outside of parish records of births, baptisms, marriages, and deaths. And it is unclear where the large amount of people in Oregon would be with recent British ancestry, as opposed to the older British ancestry that is indeed common for Americans. This is not necessarily the fault of the author, except that the author nowhere states in the title or subtitle that this is focused at a British reading audience, a problem that is quite common in genealogy works.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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