How do our family stories shape our sense of what constitutes “history”? The historian Julia Laite poses that question in her article “Schooners and Schoonermen, My Grandfather and Me”, in the new issue of History Workshop Journal, published online this week.
Laite’s piece forms part of the journal’s occasional feature Historic Passions, a forum for the historically curious to explore what first sparked their historical imagination. For Laite, that spark came from her fascination with a book her grandfather spent his final years writing about his life on Silver Fox Island, a fishing community off Newfoundland on the Labrador Straits. What Laite expected from her grandfather’s manuscript was a compendium of beloved family tales, the stories that she heard from her grandparents of harrowing, heart-breaking day-to-day struggles in an unforgiving landscape. That the book he actually wrote turned out to be very different – that it dispensed with intimate human drama, that it was, in fact, altogether lacking in stories – invites Laite to explore what it means to transform one’s own lived experience into “history” and the shifting resonances that term can hold across generational lines.
Examining her grandfather’s account of his past, probing the values that he attached to it, takes Laite into unexpected places. Looked at more closely, his seemingly parochial memoir of the decline of the Newfoundland fishing industry turns out to be a quiet indictment of the global environmental catastrophe foreshadowed by the collapse of the Labrador Straits cod stocks. A lyrical meditation on the unexpected politics of family story, Laite’s article stands as a fitting conclusion to HWO’s recent series of articles on family history, exploring just how challenging and radical that purportedly “nostalgic” field can be.
Julia Laite is a Reader in Modern History at the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology at Birkbeck, University of London. She researches and teaches on the history of women, crime, sexuality and migration in the nineteenth and twentieth century British world. She is the Birkbeck Director of the Raphael Samuel History Centre and an editor at History Workshop Journal, and maintains a strong interest in public history. She spends the summer in Trinity East, Newfoundland.