google-site-verification: google65e716d80989ba07.html A Family History Needs a Frame | The Armchair Genealogist

A Family History Needs a Frame


Today's post is courtesy of guest author Biff Barnes. 

Biff Barnes is an editor at Stories To Tell, a company which helps authors of memoirs and family history books. As a historian, Biff has published extensively about San Francisco. He was a William Robertson Coe Fellow in American History at Stanford University. His experience with historical research, oral history, and academic writing is invaluable to family history authors as they plan and organize their books.



A good story, like a good picture, is more striking with a frame.

Family history is more than a collection of facts gleaned from the vital records. When well written, it tells the stories of ancestors, giving their lives context and meaning. To you it is obvious: your ancestors’ stories are illustrations of a larger point. But will your readers understand that point?

A frame is a narrative device to help your reader understand. A thoughtful introduction and conclusion frame a chapter or story by adding levels of meaning that aren’t explicit in the story itself. The frame is like a magnifying lens. Your reader can get a clear overview of the themes revealed in the stories of your ancestors.

Let’s look at some examples of excellent family histories and how their authors framed them.

Washington framed his story as a search for identity. Washington said, “No matter where I traveled there was one thing that was always the same: everywhere I went, native Africans asked me, ‘What part of Africa are you from?’ I would reply as I always did, ‘I was born in HoustonTexas.’ I prayed that one day I would understand what they saw in me, what it was that made them believe I was from Africa.”
Washington, a star of the TV series Grey’s Anatomy, uses his frame as narrative device to chronicle his search to understand his racial identity.


Brox’s father had just died, and she had to decide what was to become of the family’s farm in the Merrimack Valley of Massachusetts. She framed her family’s story in terms of place. She described what her family had shared with all of the other people who had lived in the Merrimack Valley: Yankee farmers, Henry David Thoreau, and most of all, the immigrants employed in the textile mills of Lawrence and Lowell. She used dramatic events like the 1912 Strike for Bread and Roses and the 1918 Influenza Epidemic to place their shared experiences in a historical context. Ultimately it was the sense of her family’s kinship with the valley and its people that convinced Brox to continue to operate her father’s farm.

Lalita Tademy, Cane River

Tademy, a Silicon Valley executive, left her job to trace four generations of women in her family back to their days as slaves in Louisiana. Her great grandmother died twelve years before Tademy was born, but she often heard stories about her. “My mother has said to me often, each time with a proud, wistful smile, ‘She was an elegant lady like Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy.’ I always found this last statement impossible to embrace.”

Tademy’s book is the story of how she came to understand the elegance, the dignity and grace, of her ancestors as they overcame the trials of slavery and its aftermath.

Introductions and conclusions can be powerful tools. Framing a family history permits you to insert your wisdom as researcher, author, and family member. Where do you find these themes or lessons? They are there already, in your family history. Pull them out and polish them, so that the significance of history will appear in sharp relief.

3 comments:

  1. Useful, and nice to meet Biff, another passionate story preserver!

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  2. Great post, Lynn! I have a copy of Tademy's Cane River, now I'll go check out the other two recommendations. I love to find new books to read!

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  3. Yes, great distillation of a few great options. And thanks for letting us know about Biff's blog!

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