I used to think that people were exaggerating when they talked about having an epiphany. But I think I had one a couple of weeks ago, and it had to do with my some 30 years of pursuing my own genealogical history with a blindness to one of the most important things any ancestor hunter should include in the story of their ancestors. But first let me tell you a little about the inspiration for my novel, HOUSE OF JOHANN and how it fits into my "epiphany."
Years ago when I was in my early 20s, my grandmother told the story of her own grandmother, Magdalena Rauls, who was said to have been French, to have run away with a young man, a sailor from Germany instead of marrying the man her father had chosen for her. I was fascinated. I thought that young Magdalena had crossed the border from France into Germany, probably experiencing many hardships on the difficult journey, in order to join her true love, the sailor.
After a few years of genealogical searching and locating many ancestors on both sides of the family, I discovered that Magdalena was as German as her true love, a young farmer. I was disappointed with the false family story Grandma told. But eventually I realized that I had somewhat misinterpreted Grandma's words. She didn't say that young Magdalena had run away from France; she merely said she was French. It was probable that sometime in the 17th or 18th century one of her ancestors and his family did come from the French area close to the German border and settled in the area around Saarburg in the Germanic part of the Rhineland. Oberzerf is quite close to the French border. The Rauls probably became well known for having French roots. (I also figured out the "sailor" part, once more it was my romantic misinterpretation). The story once again had the power to fascinate me.
Since I had alway wanted to write a historical novel, I started to think about chosing this branch of my family tree with daring Magdalena and her father and siblings as the main characters. The HOUSE OF JOHANN, published in January of this year, was the result of what I had originally regarded as a false family story.
While I was working on my novel, I was asked to give a talk to the German Interest Group in Janesville Wisconsin about my research so I told them the story of my French/France mistake as a warning to be aware of the geography of your ancestors' homeland. I called the talk “The View from My Ancestors’ Windows.” My point: that stories of our ancestors’ lives, whether biography or fiction, should focus on the culture of the time and the place, including what any of the listeners might see or hear if given the chance to gaze out of an open window in an ancestor's house.
I answered questions after my talk. One of those surprised me; I had not really thought about it before, but I certainly should have. Someone asked where the farmhouse and village that belonged to my Rauls ancestors was located in relationship to more well-known places or states in today's Germany. A lot of those German ancestor hunters only knew the area of their own ancestors and didn't know where the Rhineland was. It was an oversight on my part not to explain the full geography of the area of my ancestors while I was giving my talk. I should have realized, that even though Germany is only about the size of Montana, very few people in the USA, even those who study their German ancestry, are familiar with the total map of Germanic kingdoms, empires, states administered by a Prince Archbishops of the Catholic Church, free cities, etc. I include myself in this lack of knowledge. I know the location and history of my ancestral villages in the southern half of today's Rhineland Pfalz next to the French border, and of other ancestors who came from eastern Bavaria almost on the border with today's Czech Republic. I can picture their location without having to refer to the map of Germany. However, without a map before me, I would have to guess at the location of most of the other states.
If this is the case for searchers specifically studying their German roots, imagine the confusion of the average non-genealogist without any interest in their ancestors. Yet I forgot all about location again in January when HOUSE OF JOHANN was published. The epiphany hit me when a fellow genealogist noted my lack of a specific description or map of the geographic location of the villages where Magdalena Rauls, her parents, and her brothers and sisters lived in the 1830s and 1840s. I had carefully described the superstitions that hung over a new mother who would poison a loaf of bread or water she drew from the well, but never mentioned that the little villages of Oberzerf and Irsch were not too far from either the French or the Luxembourg borders and shared many of the same customs. How could I have forgotten to tell the readers about that? I'll never forget location, location, location again.
Why does location make so much difference? Because so many people and a lot of travel brochures photograph scenes in Germany with white buildings, red tile roofs, and colorful window boxes filled with flowers. Local people usually wear traditional Lederhosen or Dirndls to serve huge mugs of beer. There are mountains in the distance, a bit of snow at their peaks. These are charming pictures but they mostly relate to the area of Bavaria around Munich or the villages and countryside of Austria which borders Bavaria.
As I have said, my 2nd great-grandmother Magdalena lived in what is today the German State of Rheinland Pfalz at the western edge of Germany, very close to Luxembourg and France. In 1827 when she was born, she was considered a Prussian citizen, just like a child born on the same day and year in the city of Berlin, far to the northeast. And in 1783 when her father was born, he was a subject of the Prince Archbishop of Trier but soon to become a French citizen and live under Napoleon's rule for almost 20 years. It would be hard to see any real difference among the population in his German village from their French or Luxembourg neighbors. Their dress was similar, the shape of their combined house and barn buildings were alike The houses of the well-to-do citizens in the larger city of Trier nearby had the look of the houses of upper middle classes of France at the time of Napoleon and after. The picture of this part of Germany would show people drinking wine from wine glasses as they sit admiring the vines loaded with bunches of grapes on the hills along rivers like the Rhine, the Saar, and the Mosel (Moselle when it crosses the border into France).
What picture should come to my mind with the German state of Sachsen? Well, I will have to look that up, but if your ancestors come from this northern German state, you probably know. But if you write a family history about one or more ancestors for Sachsen, don't forget to tell your readers just where in today's Germany that place is located and help create as clear a picture in their minds with your description as the one you always carry around yourself. A word map can often be just as meaningful as the cartographic kind.