The Wife’s Tale: A brutal but beautiful memoir

In The Wife’s tale, Guardian journalist Aida Edemariam recounts the life of her grandmother Yetemegnu, an indomitable woman who lived through the most extraordinary century in Ethiopia’s history.

Edemariam first introduces readers to Yetemegnu on the day of her wedding, when she is just eight years old. Barely aware of the vows she is making, Yetemegnu is being married to Tsega, an ambitious priest more than two decades her senior. Over the next thirty years, Tsega is varyingly tender and brutal to his wife – a tyrant who beats her when she returns home from merely buying food, and a father who..

‘…when I was a child braided my hair.
Trimming the rough edges, teaching me manners.
My husband who raised me’

Edemariam heartbreakingly evokes Yetemegnu’s secluded marriage, (as a child bride and a clergyman’s wife), and her difficult motherhood which consisted of ten births, infant deaths, and difficult partings to give her children a better future. Edemariam brings her grandmother’s voice to life with vivid descriptions of her daily routine, observations of the world around her, and her prayers offered to the Virgin Mary. Edemariam’s narrative is  filled with rich prose that perfectly evokes her grandmother’s life, such as:

“The dry season wore on… Wild figs darkened in the trees. The peaches mellowed.”

Edemariam also gives a fascinating and unique perspective into the events of the time. Born over a century ago, Yetemegnu lived well into her nineties and bore witness to the 1930s Italian occupation as well as famines, revolutions, and political coups. She vividly recounts events such as Yetemegnu fleeing her city during allied bombardment, her audiences with Emperor Haile Selassie to defend and avenge her husband; and her battles in a male dominated court to protect her property rights. With a housewife’s unique perspective, Yetemegnu also bore witness to economic and educational changes, as well as the huge changes in culture and attitude Yetemegnu herself had to struggle to understand.

Edemariam’s distinctive narrative manages to delve not only into the mind of her grandmother, but also into the rich history and culture which surrounded her. Elegant, and superbly researched, ‘The Wife’s Tale’ is both a rich panoroma of 19th century Ethiopia, and an inspiring tribute to the courage and importance of seemingly ordinary wives like Yetemegnu.

The Wife’s Tale
by Aida Edemariam
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 9780007459605

Family history at the library; unravelling the mysteries

I’ve just completed a six-week course on family history, ably run by colleagues here at Christchurch City Libraries. It’s been fascinating and I recommend it for anyone with an interest in history and/or their family.

Taking a class at the library gives you an insight into just how much family history information is now available. The Internet and digitisation of records have made it so much easier to find out about your family’s history, and every day more and more is added to the store of records online. By using the library’s e-resources, many of these records are free to access. Christchurch City Libraries also has a wealth of resources that are not online, such as registers for Canterbury churches, street directories and electoral rolls.

Church register index cards
Church registers index at Central Library Manchester

Once you start, it may become quite addictive. There will be some surprising finds. Some of the “family stories” that my mother told me have been proved to be quite wrong. Whether she made them up or whether she herself was wrongly informed I don’t know. Her belief that both of my great great-grandmothers (on her side) were Scots is totally untrue. There is a Scotsman, but a long, long way back. There are a large number of very poor East-Enders; perhaps Mum or her family were ashamed of them and sought to create a more romantic provenance for me.

It’s fascinating but also frustrating. My paternal grandfather seems to be a man of mystery entirely – where he came from has so far eluded me. Which one of the three Herbert James born in the same year in London was he? Through the Births, Deaths and Marriages Index I have been able to order his marriage certificate from the General Register Office in the UK, which tells me that he was the son of Richard James, so I can now head off down the correct path.

There have been some interesting discoveries; my favourites so far are Joseph Morgan Melville, who worked as a shipwright in Chatham Naval dockyards in the early Victorian period, and William Douglas, a rope-maker, also employed at Chatham around the same time.  So I chased down the website of Chatham Historic Dockyards and the Victorian Rope-works there.

William’s daughter Ellen had ten children and lived to be eighty-one; census records show her still employed as a laundress at 70. Poor women worked hard.

This is the part I enjoy most about family history, finding the social history behind the names. It takes you to places and subjects you never would have thought about otherwise. Investigating my grandfather’s role as a gunner in the First World War took me to books on field artillery, to see what kind of guns he would have lugged across Northern France. An interest in field artillery is not one I normally possess. All I have to say is no wonder he developed a hernia.

This herniation of my grandfather is also covered in his army service record; one thing about the army is that they kept good records, and these records are often a treasure trove of things you wouldn’t have been able to find out any other way. My great-uncle was dismissed from the army when they found out he had a heart-murmur; my great-great grandfather joined the East Kent Regiment of Foot and spent twelve years in India; he also had a birthmark on his left shoulder.

So if you’re thinking of compiling a family tree, these classes will be on offer again next year. In the meantime, quiz your older relatives about what they know of the family history, and work from what you yourself already know. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to bore my friends and colleagues with new discoveries about my own family.

Start your research online

Lynne, South Library and Learning Centre

Hits and misses with MyHeritage

I do dabble in family history research as I am fascinated by the names and stories that make up me. I am not alone as family history as a hobby is increasingly popular. There are dead ends, misleading entries and then – Bingo! –  a lead and you are off on the chase again.

MyHeritage_banner_web

Due to the popularity of family history research, big business has gotten involved and now most family history library edition eResources such as Ancestry and Find My Past are available in libraries only. This ensures the popularity of individual subscriptions for those who like to seek out new family branches from the comfort of home.

db-My-Heritage-CKEY879406There is though one exception to this rule and that is MyHeritage which is the only genealogical eResource libraries offer that can be accessed from home. By using MyHeritage you can see:

Census of England and Wales (1841-1901) and the USA federal census (1790-1940) with images;

1.5 billion exclusive family tree profiles;

Millions of cemetery headstones and historical photographs;

Government, land and court records including citizenship and naturalization records;

Wills and probate records.

I had a quick play recently and found myself rather taken aback on two levels. Firstly some of the family tree profiles were incorrect which annoyed the hell out of me – family trees can be submitted by any MyHeritage members. Secondly I found myself looking at pictures of my Great Grandfather and my Great Great Grandfather which I had never seen before. Family history research is full of hits and misses and MyHeritage is no exception. If you have yet to explore this new tool then please do. It may just provide the lead you need to progress your search.

Genealogy – my way

Cover of Tartan: Romancing the plaidThe library Family history guide must be one of the most popular digital resources that we offer. It is a site for those with an eye for detail. Those who like to paint their life canvases with accuracy. This is not my way at all.

My approach to my ancestry is more like unpacking the intricate layered notes of a complex perfume: the light high green notes of New Zealand, the wide warm middle notes of South Africa and the deep peaty tones of Scotland. And I can legitimately lay claim to my Scottish roots. I have a clan, I have a tartan, my parents (born in Scotland) moved to tropical Durban and created a little Scotland there for us. A lot of the time this Scottish aspect of my genealogy lies fallow, but it took just one book to shake it up all over again.

When I first glimpsed Tartan: Romancing the Plaid, I was captivated by the model’s neck; it is such a beautiful cover. When I focussed more carefully I saw the tartan shawl, and I was hooked. This is a gorgeous book which shows how widely loved tartan is, how its appeal straddles borders and oceans and ages. So much care has been put into producing this book, right down to the little tartan ribbon book marker that has been thoughtfully provided. This book is now on my To Buy list.

Cover of Maw Broon's CookbookIsolated from her large family, my mother did her best – she was not a gifted cook, but she kept an old recipe book and fed us Scottish Fayre when she could. Every year near Christmas the mail boats would bring us gifts from the homeland – annuals like The Broons and Oor Willie. Imagine then my joy at discovering Maw Broon’s Cookbook in the library. This book is like Scottish History on a plate. It looks and feels like an old recipe book, and won an award for its clever, realistic presentation. I have already bought this book.

The Big MusicBut, if you really want to capture your personal genealogy, you must find its music. I read Kirsti Gunn’s The Big Music about a year ago. It is a read that will take you straight to the Highlands of Scotland. It is one of the few books I have ever read which desperately needed a CD to go with it. Big Music is the oldest form of Scottish bagpipe music that exists. You can hear the beginning of this book being read on this YouTube clip. The point where the bagpipes start playing roots me to the spot. Excavates who I am to the very soul.

So where do you stand on the family history spectrum? Are you beavering away with documented, perspectival accuracy, or do you paint your canvas with broad swathes of memory?

Don’t forget your family, yeah

Don’t forget your roots, my friend
The ones who made you
The ones who brought you here
Don’t forget your roots, my friend, yeah

family historySix60 have a great song about family and provides the inspiration for a set of courses being held at Christchurch City Libraries during August. We are running two Family History programmes and you can choose the one that suits you. It’s all about discovering our family stories.

Getting Started: Beginners Guide to Family History

Start your family history research with this six week course that will introduce some key resources available at Christchurch City Libraries and beyond. Key life events such as births, deaths and marriages will be researched, along with sources covering migration, military and electoral information. We will be looking at online and paper-based resources.

Basic computer knowledge is needed.

Where: South Learning Centre & Central Library Manchester
When: Tuesdays, 4 August to 8 September (6 weeks)
Time: 6.00pm – 8.00pm
Cost: $15

Family History Images from Kete Christchurch

Family History Starter Series

A four week course that will introduce online resources to find information on:

  • Key life events – births, deaths and marriages
  • Living in New Zealand
  • Arriving in New Zealand
  • Where to next?

Bring along as much as you know about your family and we will help you fill in some gaps. We have tips and tricks to help you uncover your story and get you on your way.

Basic computer knowledge is needed.

Where: Linwood Library
Dates: Wednesdays 19 Aug, 26 Aug, 2 Sept, 9 Sept (4 weeks)
Time: 6.00pm – 7.30pm
Cost: $10.00
Bookings: Ring 941-7923 to book your place at either course.

If you are keen to know more check out our family history guide.

Find family without leaving your couch with MyHeritage

Exciting news on the family history front. Until now because of licence restrictions customers have always had to come into a library to access online family history eResources like Ancestry and Find My Past.

MyHeritage logoNow from the comfort of your own couch you can surf our newest genealogical eResource – MyHeritage during ad breaks while watching the Bachelor, or Campbell Live. It is a great way to kick-start finding those random relatives and construct that family tree for future generations.

Are you to the ‘manor born’? Or are you like me – ‘bog born’? Was your family “upstairs” or “downstairs”? The answers lie within MyHeritage and other family history resources from Christchurch City Libraries.

Begin the hunt!

An electronic marriage – Origins and Find My Past

Christchurch has a large array of electronic, print and people resources for those wishing to discover their family history whether it be a lost branch of a family tree, a birthplace or a story. The family history electronic resources are very popular for those just starting out on their search or for those looking for that one random link that can make everything fall into place.

Due to this any changes to those resources can see a flurry of questions so please be aware that Origins has disappeared! Origins specialised in unusual and often hard to find British and Irish records. Its many early records include rare marriage indexes, apprentices and poor law records. All this information is not lost, it has just been “consumed” by Find My Past. The merger will see all of the Origins information including the National Wills Index combined with the Find My Past material into a mega family history resource under the Find My Past banner.

So one search and more results – just another way your life is getting easier (online anyway).

Older man at PC

Have a play and find the black sheep in your family today.

Finding your World War One soldier – a quick online guide

With the centenary of First World War taking place over the next four years, now is the ideal time to start some research into those who served in the war. This is a very quick guide to six online resources that will help you begin research into those who served in the New Zealand Forces and help you find contextual information.

Produced by Auckland War Memorial Museum, the Cenotaph database contains biographical information about New Zealanders who fought in First World War – and other wars that New Zealand has been involved in. This is still a work in progress. The length of entries varies as does the information included, but all those who embarked with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force should have an entry.

New Zealand soldiers’ official service records have been digitised and can be found on Archives New Zealand‘s Archway resource. These can provide all sorts of information about a soldier’s service and background. You can potentially find out such things as home address, next of kin, pre-war occupation, when and where they served, and wounds and injuries. Records of nurses can be found in the same way. These records are full of abbreviations, but the New Zealand Defence Force’s glossary is very useful.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission looks after the graves of and memorials to those from the Commonwealth who died during both world wars. Their website includes a fully searchable database of graves, cemeteries and memorials, so this is the place to come if you want to find out where a soldier is buried or memorialised (if they have no known grave). Some records may contain further information about individuals.

If you are interested in war memorials in New Zealand, New Zealand History Online has a memorials register with lots of illustrations. This site is also a good place to find out more about First World War in general and how it affected New Zealand, although the number of websites and books about the war is increasing all the time.

More and more digitised material is being made available these days and one of the most useful is the National Library’s Papers Past, which contains a number local newspapers from the war years, including The Press. Newspapers can include casualty lists, letters home from soldiers and In Memoriam notices, as well as showing how the war was reported at the time.

Christchurch City Libraries has put together a dedicated WW100 page which is a gateway to lots of information about the war, both on the library website and further afield – it is well worth exploring, and includes booklists, links to further resources and details about events. If you wish to go further with your research the New Zealanders in World War One page will be of interest.

Over the next four years the amount of websites, books and digitised material will only grow, but the resources mentioned here will go along way to get you started.

Find My Past: three become one!

Family historians are passionate and observant people so they will be the first to notice a change in one of our very popular online family history resources.

Find My Past Ireland, Find My Past Australia/NZ and Find My Past United Kingdom have combined into one large Find My Past database. This means all that same lovely information is still available, but just in the one place in one search. If you want to limit your search by location all you need to do is use a drop box on the front page.

Five of the six children of Thomas Jones Walker Shand [1886]
Five of the six children of Thomas Jones Walker Shand [1886]. Christchurch City Libraries, File Reference CCL Photo Collection 22, Img01504
On Find My Past  you will find:

  • Birth, Marriage and Death records;
  • Cemetery records;
  • Probate, land and court records;
  • Migration records;
  • Criminal reports;
  • Electoral rolls and censuses;
  • Directories, almanacs and government gazettes;
  • Military records;
  • Social, biographical and historical information to provide background context.

Christchurch City Libraries has a huge variety of resources for you who are starting out on family history research or for those of you just missing a few branches from your tree.

Come in and see us today!

St Patrick’s Day without the green beer

Cover for The day of the Jack RussellIt sometimes seems like St Patrick’s Day in New Zealand is yet another excuse to overindulge in beer – and green beer at that. Not a good idea as far as I’m concerned. Do you celebrate St Patrick’s Day? Do you know if you have Irish ancestry?

Before you join the ranks of the green beer drinkers you can find out if you have Irish in your family tree by visiting our great online resources like Find my past Ireland and the British Newspaper Archive.

For a small country, Ireland has had a great influence across the world as the Irish diaspora has spread through many countries. Music and language are the great passions of Ireland and from this has come a great stream of writers, lawyers, politicians and musicians both traditional and popular.

Though I claim no Irish roots, I’ve always loved the traditional music that has been popularized by such great groups as the Chieftains. So perhaps instead of green beer I’ll celebrate St Patrick’s Day by listening to the Chieftains, reading a poem by Yeats and having a laugh with the black humour of Colin Bateman.