TEXT review


Illuminating family stories

review by Noeline Kyle

 

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Jeremy Fisher
Faith, Hope and Stubborn Pride:
Searching for heaven in Aotearoa and Australia
Fat Frog Books, Sydney 2016
ISBN 9780959035087
Pb 144pp AUD27.95

 

Jeremy Fisher set out to ‘provide a simple chronology of my family’ but believed he lacked the knowledge to do the story justice. His forbears, however, left considerable markers for the family historian and, given their standing in various non-conformist churches, there was much for the historian to find in church, archival and other genealogical sources. To add to the ‘illumination’ of the story Fisher uses some fiction, combining this with his non-fiction narrative. Given recent debates on the relative merits of using fiction in history, Fisher’s reasoning has resonance here:

The work stands as an example of writing practice combining fiction and non-fiction techniques. What I wanted to demonstrate was that biography, history and fiction can co-exist in narrative. I have not muddied the waters by trying to combine them, as I have in other of my written works. (viii)

The use of fiction is situated so that the reader is in no doubt that it has been used as a device to ‘imagine’ and ‘illuminate’ when historical data does not do so to the author’s satisfaction. As early as the mid-1990s Drusilla Modjeska wrote her ‘fictional’ biography of her mother, noting for the reader:

When I began this book my intention was to write a biography of my mother and I expected that I would keep to the evidence … (but) … to stick only to the facts seemed to deny the fictional paradox of truthfulness, and the life that the book was demanding. (Modjeska 1996: 317)

Creative non-fiction has since become a well-worked genre and the subject of continuing debate among historians, novelists and contemporary critics.

Fisher’s use of fiction in Faith, Hope and Stubborn Pride descends lightly on the narrative and its placement at the beginning of some chapters makes for a useful juxtaposition against the historically-researched narrative which follows. My one reservation here would be, that for the general reader, it is not always possible to know who one is reading about without jumping forward to scan the historical text. For example, the fictional piece ‘caught in the searchlight’, is an absorbing read, but one has no clue as to its relevance unless one reads the next section and then peruses the family lineage to link the individual to the family story.

Writing a family story almost always faces the same problem. There are too many people over too many years for the general reader to make sense of them. The best family stories are written along the edges or have a story that steers a unique passage through that ancestral forest. Jeremy Fisher has done the latter. His narrative steers a pragmatic path through, along and with the major characters and the historical events that shape them. Fisher structures his family story though a series of portraits of significant individuals beginning with Jane Cocking in the Cornish mining village of Tywardreath. What the author finds, as he maps the generations, is a God-fearing family whose Wesleyan faith sustains them. They were hardworking, stoic and in search of their ‘slice of heaven’ in Aotearoa.

This is a family story that speaks to the idea of community, a religious community at first of course but which like many other families, changes and loses some of that faith as the exigencies of distance, migration and change dilute them. It is a family story where family relationships, and those elusive but transcendent links from our present to the past are mapped, are cherished for their memory, and are viewed through a prism of new ideas, new relationships, new hopes and dreams.

Reading the fictional arc of the story of Leonora Frayne, for example, an unmarried sister to Fisher’s grandmother May, there is little to criticise in the compassion and commitment the author has to the individual members of his family story. At the same time this is an accomplished historian who has paid close attention to sources, to evidence and to critical analysis.

This story is also part memoir. The use of memoir, fiction, biography and family history is becoming more usual in creative nonfiction. The availability of sources in online indexes and through digitisation has made it possible for research to be completed quickly and efficiently that once was painstakingly slow. However, memory plays a part in shaping a family story and Fisher has ensured his own and his family’s memories are evident here. Fisher acknowledges the support of his siblings in the research and writing of this book and the memories of his mother, who by the time it was written, together with his father, had died. The writerly process – who we are writing for, our motivations for writing and how we write – is always a mixture of paying homage to ancestors past and continuing to make peace with those still here.

In the end, how we know the past is shaped by both art and science: by evidence and by imagination. As historians we need always to be on guard; we are not always right, nor always aware of the full complexity of the past, and nor are our words the final or only words to be written. There are many stories to be written and one story about one family is just that. It is a beginning, as history always is, not an end.

One small quibble; a short family chart would help the general reader to understand individual and family connections more easily in this book. Fisher has a strong commitment to the ‘truths’ of his history as well as the silences of his family past. He has woven a consistent, personal and rigorous text. History and fiction can journey together to create our family stories. But they journey separately, and in this case, explain the past with compassion, care and much credibility.

 

Works cited

 

Dr Noeline Kyle retired from QUT in 2001, with an emeritus professorship,  and continues her academic and professional interests in history with an Honorary Professorship at the University of Sydney and her involvement in local and other history and heritage organisations. Noeline maintains a keen interest in the community through the writing of books, workshops and seminars on writing family history, women’s history, especially women’s professions, and the history of childhood. Noeline has published Memories & Dreams, a biography of her great grandmother Nurse Mary Kirkpatrick (2001) and A Greater Guilt: Constance Emilie Kent and the Road Murder (2009). Her memoir of childhood Ghost Child was published in 2015. Her books Writing Family History Made Very Easy (Allen & Unwin 2007) and How to write and publish your family story in 10 easy steps (New South Books 2011) are regularly used in writing programs. Noeline maintains a website www.writingfamilyhistory.com.au and travels throughout Australia to support local, family and community history.

 

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TEXT
Vol 21 No 1 April 2017
http://www.textjournal.com.au
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy, Enza Gandolfo & Julienne van Loon
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