Book review

"The Longing," by Kimberly Mae
Friesen Press, 2015

Reading this warm-hearted book was a precise reminder to me of the full range of emotions I felt nine years ago, when I started researching my own grandmother. Like Kimberly, I knew nothing about her apart from isolated details and rumours; just like her I had to go to Ireland to find out more. Hundreds of people have the same experience every year, the Irish diapora being much greater than the current population of Ireland. Hundreds of people are delighted by the beautiful countryside and calm serenity of Ireland, and have to experience it again. Hundreds of people are astonished every year by the kindness and real interest shown by ordinary Irish residents in assisting them to trace their ancestors. When strangers like us suddenly land in their midst to search for names, families and homesteads long forgotten, Irish folk listen eagerly to their own past.

"The Longing" is Kimberly’s desire to find out about her grandmother who, like her mother, suffered from bipolar disorder, a hereditary mental illness that used to be known as manic depression. It causes huge uncontrolled swings of temperament and behaviour, from active and high-spirited, to passive and depressive. Kimberly is fortunate enough to be healthy, and nowadays there is effective drug treatment, but until recently it was usually a dark family secret, rarely talked of. In my family, my grandmother was reputed to have been a famous prostitute; all my family knew basic, vague details about her since she was my father’s only known relative, but we never mentioned her in public.  But nowadays thanks to the Internet and, in Kimberley’s case, the publication of old government records, family secrets have been brought into the open, so that heart-rending questions can be answered.

I trawled through documents to find out about my grandmother, and Kimberly unearthed hospital records of her grandmother’s life. She felt a longing to find parallels between her mother’s and grandmother’s illnesses, and also to find out why her grandmother, born in America, could have been deported to Northern Ireland, a country she had never been to before. So after finding out as much as she could on paper, she and her husband visited the places in Ireland that her relatives had once lived in. They uncovered a new relative in the process. Just like me she was overwhelmed and very emotional. In her writing one can sense her tears of joy and surprise.

Neither Kimberly nor I set out to write a book, though both of us came to the conclusion that we had to in order to set the record straight, and to let the world know the importance of what we had discovered. In my first book I had no idea how to organise my findings, so I wrote what had happened day by day, one event after another, just as Kimberly has. This has the advantage of allowing you to organise your information more clearly as you receive it. In both cases we transcribed these notes into a memoir of events. The problem with this is that when writing memoirs you focus on yourself, not on the person you’re talking about. My first book, like Kimberly’s, was full of my own reactions; therefore unimportant things were sometimes over-emphasized, while important events were sometimes sketchily dealt with.

But in order to write research, the researcher must focus on who did what and what has been discovered, not on the researcher. For example, at the moment "The Longing" refers to people by their relationship to the writer, e.g. ‘mum’, ‘grandmum’ and ‘great-grandmum’, and so on; however readers would recognise actual names, places and dates much more easily.

If "The Longing" is rewritten with this in mind it will be much more readable. When Kimberly starts to re-focus the story on her mum and grandmum (identified by their names) she will be able to tell the story much more lucidly, being more aware of what is important. It is a distressing tale of the incompetence of mental health authorities, who caused not only great hardship and suffering to all the members of an entire family, but also searing mental, physical, social and emotional destruction of a defenceless woman. Kimberly has good reason to publicise the spurious reasons why, in the previous generation, officials split her family up against its will. The enormous economic cost to the government of firstly deporting someone to an unknown place and then losing her for several months, secondly removing their mother from four children, taking them into care, then separation and adoption against their will, points to the unreasonable nature of authoritarian politics, regardless of which countries are involved. Of course ‘grandmum’ was bipolar and did require restraint, but she always remained a loving mother, until that too was taken away from her.

So I’m waiting for a new edition. It can have the same title and ISBN, with ‘2nd edition’ inside the cover. I’d be very grateful if Kimberly would have it properly edited to remove the typographical errors that disturb the reader from time to time, and much happier if the religious exhortations are cut down by at least half. I don’t mind the occasional thanks to God, but not all readers belong to the same religion. Also not so many conversations with and moods of family members please, unless they actually form part of the grandmother’s story. And what about including a family tree, or a list of members of the family, past and present, so that the reader can remind him/herself who is being talked about?

Sorry if you think I’m being harsh, Kimberly, but I want you to make a good job of telling your grandmother’s story, and you’ve made a good start. I’m thinking of the lessons I learnt when I wrote down the facts about my grandmother. Your family research is just as important as mine because it deals with another individual destroyed by indifferent authorities, and we need to stop that happening again. Truth really is stranger than fiction.

Views: 200

Tags: Ancestry, Books, Genealogy, Reviews

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