My novel A Useful Life was a quarter finalist for the 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. It’s about a woman researching her dead husband’s family in search of answers to questions he left behind.
I’ve been a genealogist for more than twenty years. I began researching my husband’s family because he thought his father had no relatives. I took that as a challenge. I now have more than three thousand people in his family tree going back to the 1600s. So much for no relatives.
Along the way we’ve met many third and fourth cousins around the world and become quite close to many of them. Those are the living ones, but in a way I feel quite close to some of the deceased ones too. As I dug up information about them, I found myself thinking about the lives and stories beyond the dates and facts. I read their letters and obituaries and felt I knew them somehow. When my research turned up something puzzling, I imagined logical explanations for their actions. I felt sad when I saw their death certificates and happy when I read their wedding announcements. I began to make up life stories for them in my head. Then I wanted to tell those stories, but I didn’t want the burden of footnotes and academic rigor, so I took those imagined lives and mixed them around and created fictional characters. They have some of the life facts of real people and they share a historical context with real people in the Jewish community of Memphis between 1859 and 1893, but their personalities, their actions, their behavior, are made up.
This is all to say that the 19th century characters in my novel are not my husband’s ancestors, nor are they really based on his ancestors. They’re people I imagined lives for, based on what I learned about what it was like to live in Memphis in 1870 or 1880. The main character researching her dead husband’s family is not me, my husband is not dead, and her sons are not my sons. I created her and her genealogical journey to explore history, the meaning of family, and the surprising things we discover about ourselves when we embark on that journey.
Is there such a thing as a cool book-recommending mom? Because if there is, I might be one. My kids have always been big readers, and I kept them supplied with the latest and greatest by reading lots of book reviews. For a while, I was also their school librarian, so the other kids got the benefit of my obsessive searches for the really worthwhile books. Several of them would come to me every time they finished a book and asked me to find something else they would like.
At some point, my kids began to reject kids books and even young adult books. That was about the age of 10 or so. It was a bit of a challenge to find reading material for them in those “tween” years that was challenging enough for them intellectually but not grossly inappropriate for them emotionally.
The most fun has been since the oldest started high school, when I was able to recommend books that I really like and know they were old enough to appreciate them. They both enjoy reading fiction (although they’re not in the habit of it the way they used to be) and they usually ask me for a suggestion when they’re in the mood to read. Our reading taste has a lot of overlap, so this is fun for me and, I think, useful for them. I have several hundred linear feet of bookshelves in the basement where I store the fiction I’ve read. We go downstairs and I start pulling books out for them.
When my older son was in high school, the book recommendations extended to his friends. He would sometimes lend them books of mine (which I didn’t always get back) or give them titles to read. Occasionally when one of them was at our house we’d look at the shelves together and choose something.
A couple of days ago, my younger son had a friend over whom I don’t know that well. I was upstairs trying to fix a desk drawer when my son came into the room and said, “How about I work on that while you go downstairs and give N some book recommendations.” Recommending books is way more fun than fixing a drawer, so I handed over the screwdriver and headed down the stairs. We spent 15 or 20 minutes talking about what sorts of books he’d enjoyed in the past (Dostoyevsky, Ishiguro) and I tried to match him up with some new authors (Richard Powers, Donna Tartt). I’m looking forward to getting a progress report from him.
We were on the west coast visiting colleges this week. Every information session and tour makes that school sound like the best place on the planet. Compared to being a grownup, I suppose, any college is fantastic. This is the second (and last) time we’ve been through this process and both times it’s provoked existential angst about my own college choice.
Back in those days, we made our college selections based on the flimsiest of reasons, with next to no research. Looking at five schools this week (and this is only the very beginning), I can’t help thinking I’d have had a better experience at pretty much any of them than at the school I attended. Sure, there are people I wouldn’t have met, but I probably could have been happier overall without the excessive Greek influence and the southern preppy culture. I was a girl from the soybean fields of the midwest. What did I know from debutantes? I spent four years muddling through, without ever considering any other options. I probably should have transferred, or gotten involved in more campus activities or sought out a mentor or somehow gotten more out of the experience. Would that I could do it all over again.
It’s true: “Youth is wasted on the young.” (George Bernard Shaw)