A character unearthed in family history

I was in Wollongong late last week for a lovely service for my grandmother, attended by much of her family, including her brother, nieces and cousins from Captain’s Flat, NSW. I learnt so much more about my Nanna, particularly through hearing stories about her father, a family legend, ‘Bullocky’ Bill Thompson.

But I’m not going to tell you those stories. At least not here, not now.

Let me explain. Recently I had finished my workout at the gym when a woman began talking to me in the change room. She’d had a rough day, and I felt for her, but when she began to go into the detailed history of her family (going back several generations) in Australia, my eyes glazed over. I felt bad about it, but as I edged toward the door I marveled at this woman’s lack of awareness. Why would I, a stranger, want to know all about her family? The problem, too, was in the telling. Details are very important in storytelling, but not banal and irrelevant details. She had to tell me everyone’s names, and even correct herself, going back to the 1800s, but she didn’t know exactly why her great-uncle Graham Smith had gone to jail, just that he had.

The stories I gathered about my great-grandfather, on the other hand, really struck me because of specific details which told you so much about who he was as a person and why he’s so alive in my family members’ hearts. And yet, I feel I can do better to tell you those stories than to just list anecdotes in a blog post, or else I may indeed come across just like that woman. Why would you care about this man you have no connection to? If I’m to tell these special stories and do them justice, I have to think much more about the format. I also feel a sense of responsibility for these stories, now, being only one of two scribes in that side of the family (that I know of).

I also wonder about how much it is my right to take these anecdotes and legends shared within the family circle, shared orally, and put them to screen or paper. My solution would probably be to take the aspects of his character that are so striking, that made my relatives’ eyes shine in the telling, and create a character from him that is not Bill, but is a fictional appropriation of him (for how could I ever know enough about him to represent him?).

But do I even have a right to do that? I’m sad that I can’t ask my Nanna more about him. I’m sad, in fact, that I can’t ask my Nanna more about herself. Even when I got older and asked her questions about her life, I didn’t ask everything. And even if I had, she would have answered differently, depending on the day. We are flexible, we have moods, and our memories change. And sometimes we are just shy with each other. I don’t like to make people uncomfortable.

But then they are gone and for some reason you want and need to tell their stories. I don’t think it’s simply for genetic reasons (as in, explaining aspects of your own narrative through genetic similarities or differences). It’s just that you know, or think you know, when the details gathered about a person would add up to make a fascinating character, someone that other people would be interested to know about. You don’t want them to become lost in time.

So one day I think I will write a story, based on a small selection of details passed down through my family, about my great-grandfather. I’m not sure yet whether it will be short or long, or how long it will take me to write it. It could be twenty years from now. But let me assure you that if I get it right, he will make your heart swell and your eyes shine with wonder.

To finish, I’ll just tell you that apparently he has already inspired a poem. My family reckoned that he was such a legend he was written about in his time. It doesn’t seem to exist online, but my folks are sending me a copy soon. I’m looking forward to reading it.

13 thoughts on “A character unearthed in family history

  1. Great post. We are all interested in human experience I think. While your gym “friend” sounds a bit of a nutter (a boring one at that) I actually think we can take for granted how interesting our own family history can be. But then – I’m a huge fan of “Who do you think you are” and often find other’s family history much more interesting than my own! It’s about what perspective and context you tell it – and yes, the telling. Writing about our own beloved family members can be fraught as you describe and yet writers feel okay about creating characters based on real strangers. I’m interested in reading Kate Grenville’s novel about her ancestor “Sarah Thornhilll”. I also found out a lot about my Grandma when she died (at 100 years old) but when I would ask her about the past she would laugh and say she had lived lots of little lives and didn’t dwell on the past.

    • Thanks for your comment, Julianne. I certainly took it for granted when I was younger, but I’m beginning to learn how fascinating it can be. Even the stories of these tiny towns like Captain’s Flat, which rose and fell depending on industry (and my rellos had much to do with that). But yes, I have this strong desire to tell it right, to not ‘waste’ the stories, as it were. Especially when they were told so well to me in the oral fashion. I completely relate to what you say about your grandmother, though, many people like to keep the past in the past, or it’s simply too complicated to go into. 100 years is a lot of years! On the other side of my family, my Oma wrote (quite openly), and my Opa worked with photography, so there’s much more of a record.

  2. Dear Angela – that’s not fair. You’ve left us hanging! I’m now curious to learn more about your great-grandfather. Great post and good advice – it’s all in the details you share (and the ones you leave out). You’ve got me wanting more.

    Do you have a right to share Bill? Sure. Like you, I think some characters transcend an individual’s family. They are of interest to us all. They help us to better understand a moment in time, a character, and ourselves. Sadly, the art of aural storytelling within families is fading, and so we rely on the written word to keep our ancestor’s stories alive. Lucky you to have been gifted this man to write about.

    I would love to read the poem if your family would be willing to share it with your readers.

    • Thanks Melissa, I’m sorry to leave you hanging! I will chase up my dad for the poem soon. I don’t know whether it will still be under copyright, but I may be able to share it here. We’ll see.

      ‘They are of interest to us all. They help us to better understand a moment in time, a character, and ourselves.’ Yes, thank you for that. That is how I felt as soon as I heard these stories about Bill.

  3. I reckon you should just go ahead and write it and not worry about whether or not it will be ‘good enough’. All writing has to be for the love of the thing and the process first. People will always evaluate your writing however they wish (I’m sure you know this already, as a reviewer.) Then again, I also know that sometimes these things have their time, and that right now may not be that time, for you. You’ll know when it is time.

    • Yes, Glen, it’s not that it won’t be ‘good enough’, it just simply won’t be ‘enough’ right now, if you know what I mean. I have to delve further.

  4. Lovely post Angela … so lovely I don’t quite know how to respond. Like Julianne I immediately thought of Kate Grenville, but her first book The secret river which is where she started with her family story and Solomon Wiseman. Have you read her Searching for the Secret River? I loved that – her description of the inspiration and her research was great, but then her discussion of how she gradually turned from her original plan of non-fiction to fiction was really fascinating. It’s a treasure of a book I think – specific to her story but general too. I thought of it again recently when I heard Anna Funder talk about Stasiland and how she started that as fiction and why she turned to non-fiction. It’s not about family of course and her subjects were still alive …

    And this brings me to the issue of time and distance from thereof! I wonder whether it feels easier/more appropriate to tell the stories when time has elapsed, when, in a way, the people become less individual people and more a part of the fabric of history, of the stories of the world?

    • Thanks Sue, and no I haven’t read Searching for the Secret River 9though I have read TSR). I remember when it came out.

      It’s interesting what you say about time and difference, I have been thinking about that, too. Because he was apparently one of the last bullock drivers, he is in a way part of history already (and other details of his story also make him so, not just how long ago it was). I read a newspaper article on him from 1974, when he was very old, and it already attempts to capture him as a historical figure. It talks about how he lived as a child and the man he became, and how people ‘today’ no longer live like that. He lived to old age so he also, of course, lived many lives. If I were to write about him I’d have to choose, perhaps, what era to focus on. And I really must visit Captain’s Flat, since my mother was born there too.

  5. I too have spent a huge amount of time wondering how to write the stories from my family in a way that’s sensitive to people’s wishes or need for privacy, but which also captures in some way the people who are no longer here. My Dad once said to me that he wondered whether the idea of an ‘afterlife’, & needing to be good in order to have a good one actually had more to do with how we appear in the stories people tell about us after we die, than about an actual afterlife in which we’re conscious. It’s an interesting idea, I think.

    With my own grandparents who’ve died, I feel I need to keep part of them alive for me by telling stories about them (even if just to myself), because I miss them immensely. For me it’s a way of dealing with that loss.

    But how to do that in a way that I can share is trickier. Much of my fiction is me trying to understand the experiences from my family—but of course those characters are not necessarily even anything like the members of my family who had those experinces. fiction seems to be the best way I’ve come up with so far.

    I’ll be interested to hear how you end up working with what you’ve found out.

    • Soph, your dad’s idea about the ‘afterlife’ in stories is absolutely fascinating, and I think it’s true.

      And I completely understand about your grandparents. Let’s swap some stories next time we meet.

      And re inquiring into all of this further, I think I am going to start on an article about researching the past, and people from the past. I can definitely think of many authors (ie. see the interview with Belinda Castles after this post) who have successfully interpreted not only the past but stories of their own relatives and ancestors through fiction.

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