How many of us have remarked that we wished for a time machine. We have to see and experience things ourselves to truly understand them. But since that’s not possible, we can do the next best thing (something I always try to do when writing historical fiction) and read the words and thoughts of those who lived before us. There are a few ways to accomplish this.
You can find more at local historical societies and libraries. Sometimes they are hard to read but worth the effort. My husband found a hand-written genealogy written in 1888 by one of his relatives. It’s not just a genealogy, though. It has memories and stories that relatives told as well, including one man who was a chaplain in the Union army and accompanied the troops on Sherman’s march to the sea. It has remembrances about how one man’s mother was distressed when he joined a different church until a pastor set the mother straight, and even one interesting story about a trip to a fortune teller.
Live in Their Society
Nothing beats contemporary newspapers for learning about the world our ancestors lived in. Of course you can look for names and dates, but to get a feel for how they lived their lives and what events influenced them, read newspapers and magazines. The magazines often contained serial fiction that later was put into books that you’ve probably heard of. In my novel Annie’s Stories I talk about Harper’s doing this, and you can even read some issues online here. For historical newspapers look here.
Look at Photographs
There are many sites where you can find old photographs, and just doing a Google search will bring up many. If you’ve ever seen photographs of immigrants at Ellis Island, you’ve probably seen Augustus Sherman’s photographs. He makes a cameo appearance in my novel Grace’s Pictures. I love to study the expressions, but you can also learn a lot from the clothing (were they rich or poor?) and even from the setting (in a studio, at home, outside?) Those Ellis Island photographs often depict people in their native garb, something they may have quickly discarded once they stepped foot in Battery Park when relatives met them with more American clothing (so they wouldn’t stand out.)
These are just a few things that help me go back in time. What other ideas do you have?
If you saw the Oscar nominated movie Philomenastaring Judi Dench, you understand the experience my character Annie Gallagher goes through before she comes to America. Unlike Philomena, Annie wasn’t sent to the nun’s laundry to work because she was pregnant, but like her she was there to pay for her perceived sins. Annie was innocent, but it did not take long for her to believe God had abandoned her in that place.
“You are here to cleanse your sins, child. You do know you’re a sinner—and of the worst kind.”She dared to speak. “What is the worst kind, sir?”His fingers slid down her arm to her wrist. “The worst are girls who are so lovely, who have skin soft and smooth…”~From Annie’s Stories
The unfortunate part about these stories is that there was more than one of these institutions and they existed for well over two hundred years in Ireland. Shortly before my most recent visit to Ireland in 2013, the Irish government offered an apology for their part in what was called the Magdalene Laundries.
The women worked in these laundries (and so did children as you can see below), which provided services to hotels, resorts, and other other businesses, for no pay and against their will.
Transferred from en.wikipedia; transferred to Commons by User:Dmitri Lytov using CommonsHelper. (Original text : Scanned by Eloquence* from Finnegan, F.: Do Penance or Perish. A Study of Magdalen Asylums in Ireland. Congrave Press, Ireland, Piltown, Co. Kilkenny (2001).)
In Annie’s Stories my intent was not to point an accusing finger at a whole institution, such as the Catholic church in Ireland. I cannot say that all the laundries were abusive. But I think it’s clear from what we know today that some were.
Some people who read Annie’s Stories will probably wonder if such a thing really could have happened in Ireland. The answer is yes. Part of my heart lives in Ireland with the landscape and the people. There is so much that is good and beautiful there to celebrate. I feel the same about America and yet there are dark episodes in our history as well—Indian massacres (on both the Indian and the white side), the Civil War, race riots—to name just a few. There have even been institutions very much like Magdalene Laundries in America. In the 19th century both men and women could be admitted to what was referred to as insane asylums for a myriad of reasons, some light years away from being mental health issues. (If you don’t believe me, read this list.)
I explain in the author notes of Annie’s Stories, referring to a character in the book, “When Father Weldon tells Annie that the church is not evil, he means that there are caring people within it, and I believe that has been true since the church first began. But a code of secrecy has allowed injustice to continue. History has lessons to teach us, and I pray our society learns from this awful episode.”
I believe stories have the power to change and influence us. If my story, and stories like Philomena, can have a positive impact by encouraging readers to stand up for justice, and have the courage to overcome the code of silence that is most often seen today as apathy, I will be pleased beyond measure.