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Book Notes – Sustainable Genealogy: Separating Fact From Fiction in Family Legends

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SustainableSustainable Genealogy: Separating Fact From Fiction in Family Legends. By Richard Hite. (2013. Pp. 126. $18.95. Softcover. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc. 3600 Clipper Mill Road, Suite 260, Baltimore MD 21211-1953. www.genealogical.com) ISBN: 978-0-8063-1982-7.

Richard Hite has penned a dense treatise on the pitfalls and obstacles we hit when relying on family traditions to guide our research directions. I say ‘dense’ simply because the page count may be small, but the text is also small, and packed tight with stories of successes and failures when following the tale trail. There are no pages taken up with charts, images, or even bullet points. Each section within the chapters tells of a unique example that demonstrates the methodology and skepticism that must take the reigns, despite what Grandma told you.

When I picked up this book and started looking through, I was pleasantly surprised about his usage of the term ‘oral history.’ From Chapter 1, Hite introduces the term and then refers to it throughout the rest of the book. This is an important designation because ‘oral history’ is a field all its own, and has spent decades developing standards and critiques that guide its practitioners. While Hite does not go in depth regarding official ‘oral history’ guidelines and best practices, he does introduce some of the questions that must be asked when interviewing a person, such as: Did the person know the people involved? If so, how old was the informant when the people involved died? Whether or not the informant knew them, did he or she grow up in the same vicinity as the people in the story?

One area of necessity, yet predicted to elicit gasps from many readers, is Hites application of the term ‘oral history’ to those beloved or hated family histories that are in print. This label is necessary because too many researchers fall into the trap of taking these printed family histories as gospel – the branch of the family that is viewed as “documented” simply because it is in print. Again, Hite reminds his readers that unless the genealogy is fully and accurately documented, the “history” should be viewed as “legend” or ‘oral history’ at best.

As Hite navigates the minefield of family legend, he faces some of the most popular ones head on: Cherokee princesses, royalty trails to Charlemagne, hero worship, and the life of the infamous versus famous. Naturally, some of these are going to be obvious hand slaps by reminding folks that these legends are more like tall tales – fun to listen to, but worthless from the research standpoint. However, Hite digs far deeper into these categories and illustrates the vetting of truth versus legend. He actually helps readers understand that in many cases, there can be a small kernel of truth to the story. And at the end of the day, we have a high statistical probability of being descended from Charlamagne just from the generational math alone. Speaking of math, he also reminds readers that our pedigrees must line up chronologically. If the dates and locations are off, we have a serious problem.

One other great feature of this book is his focus on immigration ancestors and our margin of error. His outline of German versus Dutch versus Deutsch versus Netherland Dutch is worth its weight. If you have ANY Germanic ancestors, this Chapter should be a beginning primer to help you keep an open mind when researching origins – and how easy it is for US to make wrong assumptions. There are so many detailed examples in this book that it becomes a truly fun read. While learning something about strategy and research guidelines, we are treated to wonderful examples that read better than the “stories” that began each journey. Hite masterfully takes the reader through the journeys, exhibiting the wonderful lesson repeatedly learned with each example: truth is better than fiction – and in most cases, MUCH more exciting!

that nix will transform.

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