When I was a teenager I remember watching the Today
show one day when they were interviewing a homeschool family who left everything behind for a year and traveled across the United States learning more about history by visiting historical landmarks. This really appealed to me, the nomadic lifestyle, seeking an education by experiencing new things, courageously leaving behind everything to experience something different. This is exactly what author Jennifer Wilson, her husband and two kids did in the book Running Away to Home
. They sell most of their worldly possessions and move to her ancestor's hometown in Croatia for a year so that she can seek out information about her ancestors.
Now if you are wondering is this another memoir where someone talks about going back to find their roots, yes it is. It's also a look at what the author believes really matters (something I won't address in this review). But what's different about this memoir is that they live in the ancestor's homeland trying to experience something different than what they knew in America. While the book is light on genealogical research; basically the author sticks to oral interviews with distant cousins and neighbors as well as checking out cemeteries and church records, it is an interesting look at a non-genealogist taking the time to find her roots. There are some interesting tidbits that explain why research can be so difficult. As Wilson researches she learns that the church records are kept by the family's street address, not alphabetically. Wilson has no idea what the street address is and later finds that those addresses have changed over time.
The fact that this book is about a Croatian family history and you have no Croatian ancestors shouldn't be a reason not to read the book. In fact, in what little genealogical information the author does write about, any genealogist could glean something from it. For instance, she has a hard time gaining access to the "Book of Names" at the local church. She later finds out that there are more than one "Book of Names", it was duplicated to save the book from the communists. There being more than one copy of a record might be something that American researchers may want to consider as they research in places like "burned out" counties. She also learns that as the previous priest leaves, the new priest is more accommodating when asked to look through the book for her ancestor's names.
As Wilson encounters "cousins" who won't or can't provide information, everything taking twice as long as it should and the frustrations that can come with family history research, it's a good reminder to all of us that genealogy is a process and not a list of tasks that can quickly be checked off.
For those with Croatian ancestors, this book provides some history that may be of interest as you trace your roots. For everyone else, it's an interesting look at the answer to the question "what if I left everything to go live in the land of my ancestors?"
Running Away to Home: Our Family's Journey to Croatia in Search of Who We Are, Where We Came From, and What Really Matters, by Jennifer Wilson. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2011