Home > Authors, Books > Family and fortune — what makes a memoir

Family and fortune — what makes a memoir

I recently heard Mark Medley of the National Post say that he receives four or five family memoirs a week, sent in with hopes of obtaining a review. There’s little prospect of this happening, considering that major newspapers receive several hundred books each week, each sent in with the hope of gaining mention.

I didn’t have reviews in mind when I began work on mt family memoir, which I call Lives of My Fathers. 

My intention, like that of other family memoirists, was to create something my children would enjoy, and hopefully pass along to their children.

I’d started work on my family tree in the 1990s. I had taped an oral history from my father about 1980 but otherwise,I knew next to nothing about his or my mother’s ancestors. That left me little to start with. I began by posting a question on a roots web site, telling what I knew from my father, Percy Argyle  — his birth in Derbyshire, England, First World War service, and emigration to Canada.

That began an incredible chain of contacts, enabling me finally to trace my father’s line back to the Rev. Richard Orgell (17th century spelling for Argyle), who became the Vicar of Lullington in the Church of England. I found his graduation from Oxford University in 1599 and his subsequent ordainment on a Church of England web site.I heard from Argyles across Britain and Canada and in the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand. All were very helpful. One sent me copies of letters written by a young Harry Argyle, a coal miner who died in a mine accident in South Africa during the gold rush of the 1880s. I travelled to England and met with cousins Sonia Smith, Patrick Smith, and Chris Argyle.

I had less luck in tracing my mother’s family.I was able to establish her birth in Yorkshire as Katherine Connor but I could find nothing on her Irish antecedents. So in writing my memoir I naturally chose to focus on my father’s side of the family tree.

When you set out to write a memoir you have a few choices. You can write the stark details of the types of events that used to go into family Bibles – births, marriages, deaths, with little narrative development. Or you can fill in the blanks with what is definitely known about your people — what they did, where they worked, the challenges they would have faced.

livescover

I wanted to do more than that. I decided to regard the information I had turned up as nothing more than a skeleton. I would use my  imagination to put flesh on the bones — to write Lives of My Fathers as if I were writing a novel. It would be true to  all the hard facts, but I would draw on my imagination to create scenes and dialogue and maintain the narrative. All the while, I hoped, remaining authentic to the experiences they would have had.

I thought about the Australian  writer, Kate Grenville, who set out to write a memoir of her grandfather. She decided his story would  be better told as a novel. For that reason, she changed his name and wrote what was  entirely a work of fiction. Her events and characters are all adapted from the actual historical record.

I decided to use her model, but not to change the names. The Argyles of my historical records would become the Argyles of Lives of My Fathers. their stories based on things that really happened.

This meant doing a lot of research beyond the family tree. As there is a legend in my family that our origins were in Scotland, and that two brothers had travelled south to Derbyshire in the English Midlands on a religious pilgrimage, I decided to work that into my memoir.

But what about their origins? Again, I tapped into my research to imagine how the first Gaelic arrivals from  Ireland would have settled on the west coast of Scotland. Argyle, I learned, means “coast of the Gaels” in Gaelic.

My memoir is broken into four “books.” The first, entirely fictional, tells the story of a mythical Rothan who settles in the Argyle district of Scotland in the sixth century. Hundreds of years later, two descendants set out for England, seeking to become priests. One is burned at the stake for heresy. The other establishes the family line in Derbyshire.

The second book is about Richard Argyle the vicar of Lullington and Erasmus Argyle. the lord of Heage Hall. Thomas Argyle, the first to own this once great estate, has survived the Great Fire of London, just as his father has lived through the English Civil War that saw the execution of King Charles I.

The third book tells the tale of  Edward Argyle who journeys to Australia on a leaky ship, becomes a “squatter king” with thousand of acres under his control, and sires a future premier of the Australian state of Victoria — Sir Stanley Argyle.

The last book begins with William Argyle and his widow Catherine, who becomes a rag and bone collector to keep her family from starvation in 19th century England. I draw on census records that show her giving such an occupation, and later becoming a shop owner before her son, my grandfather John Argyle establishes  a tinsmithing business with his brother Thomas. After their business is done in by cheap imports of pots and pans from Germany, John sends his family, including my fifteen-year-old father, to Canada.

I end the memoir with my father’s service in the First World War, in which he takes part in the battles of Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele.

With true events like these, I had no difficulty building scenes and dialogue that I believe give a true reflection of their lives.

I found myself with far more material than I could use. One branch of the Argyles converted to the Mormon faith and sailed to America. Joseph Argyle led his pregnant wife and several children across the plains in the first “hand cart” trek of the Mormons to Utah. Many of his descendants live there today. After writing several chapters about Joseph and the Mormons, I decided not to use them — it was all too much. Even without their story, the book I had printed through blurb.ca runs to 344 pages. If you’re so inclined, you can download an e-copy of my book here.

There are easier ways, of course, to write a family memoir. I hope you’ll write one for your family. Understanding our origins helps us to better understand ourselves.

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