Writing the immigrant story, in truth or fiction

“Imagine being a sixteen year old boy, walking across Europe and leaving your whole family behind. Imagine being a young girl, the poor daughter of immigrants, trying to bridge the gap between your parents and the world they now live in.”

The above is from cover copy of Amy Cohen’s new book, Pacific Street. What was life like for immigrants coming to America in waves back in the 1800s and early 1900s? I discovered my Dutch ancestors were a hard-scrabble lot hoping for a better life in the US, a common story. Whether it was better here is debatable, but their journeys helped make me who I am today.

Sharon Lippincott, of The Heart and Craft of Lifewriting, gave a shoutout on Facebook for Amy Cohen and her historical novel, Pacific Street. This is Amy’s first book, and what I read on Amazon’s Search Inside was well-written and made me excited to ask her to be a guest on my blog. She had researched her immigrant ancestors and decided to write about them as historical fiction. Why? Let’s find out. . .

* * * * *

Amy, what got you started on documenting your family history?

When my first grandson was born in 2010, I realized that he was the next link in a long chain of generations. It made me think about my own mortality, and it made me wonder about all those who came before me. I knew almost nothing about them, and I realized that someday my grandchildren and their children might want to know their history. I started slowly at first, got frustrated, came back two years later with a mentor to guide me, and have been pursuing my family history with a passion since then.

Where did you find the stories of your ancestors, versus just genealogy names?

The stories came from numerous sources. Sometimes from family members, sometimes from newspaper stories, and sometimes from memoirs and letters written by family members long ago. Also, it is often possible to piece together stories from records such as birth, marriage and death records, census records, military records, and immigration records.

What made you decide to write a novel instead of a family history book?

I first recorded my research only on Ancestry.com, but then in October 2013 I was encouraged to start a blog by a second cousin whom I had recently found. She helped me set up the blog, and from there I started telling the stories I uncovered through my research. But those stories did not follow a specific sequence, nor were they very accessible for someone who wanted the big picture of one family group.

I wanted to write something that would tell a complete story in a format that would be enjoyable even to someone without an interest in my family or in genealogy. Again, my grandsons were my inspiration. I thought that if I wrote the story about my grandparents, their great-great-great-grandparents, as a novel, focusing on their childhood and young adult years, it might be a book that they would read on their own as young adults. Since they are now only three and seven, whether that happens remains to be seen! But many others have read the book and enjoyed it.  That is very rewarding to me.

Is there a message you hope readers get from your book?

The novel tells the story of my maternal grandparents from 1899 through 1915. My grandfather was born in Romania in 1888 and walked out of the country to escape oppression and anti-Semitism in 1904 when he was just sixteen. He settled in New York City, living alone until the rest of his family arrived in 1910. My grandmother was born in 1895 in New York City to poor immigrant parents from Poland; her father died when she was just five years old. Somehow these two poor young people, neither of whom had a high school education, managed to survive in New York City. How they matured and handled adversity is a theme of the novel. It is also a story of hope against all odds, a story about families and love. It is the story of all of us who descended from immigrants—those came to America seeking a better life.

Is there anything else you’d like to say about this genealogy/writing journey?

When I started dabbling in family history back in 2010, I had no idea that it would become such a passion. The research is challenging and keeps my brain working, the writing satisfies my creative impulses, and the contact with newly found relatives and other genealogists is rewarding emotionally. More importantly, I feel like I am doing something meaningful by recording this history—in many ways, a history that we all share. The people I’ve learned about fascinate me. They overcame so many challenges, and they made it possible for me and my children and my grandchildren to live good lives. Without their courage and their sacrifices, I would not exist. In some ways I feel it is my duty to honor them by telling their stories. It is the least I can do to thank them all.

* * * * *

My thanks to Amy for this beautiful story, and I hope she has inspired you to start or continue writing your ancestors’ stories. Please take a look at her book, Pacific Street. It is on my To-Be-Read list now. If you read it, be sure to leave her an honest review—especially for independent authors, reviews pave the street with gold.


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Genealogy, family history, and life stories book

My dad was prescient. In high school, he became interested in photography and snapped photos of life on the farm in the 1930s. After portable tape recorders and cassette tapes came on the commercial scene in the 1970s, he interviewed his family members about their lives, including back in the old country – Holland. Oh, what stories! After discovering and then sitting on this treasure for too long (too busy with other things), I am finally serious about putting together a book of genealogy and the life stories of the Dutch half of my family – hopefully by my dad’s 85th birthday later in May. Genealogy is not so easy though — yikes!

I started off spending time at the library using their free Ancestry.com to try to find and verify the American ancestors’ information, which apparently was not always collected in those days, or at least is not posted online. Where are their death records? There was the problem of different spellings of immigrant names, and that some of the first-last name combinations are common. Not to mention this is like venturing into a chipmunk burrow — look, there’s a path, look, there’s another! I did discover the amazing FindaGrave site populated by earth angels poking around in cemeteries. That’s when I discovered that census records are not so accurate concerning birth year and age (maybe my ancestors couldn’t remember?). Then I discovered the wonderful free FamilySearch—thank you to the Mormons!

Recently, by simple Google Search of married couples’ sets of names, I found some Dutch genealogy sites where my distant relatives had submitted information on my old-country relatives. On my dad’s mother’s side, those names went back to the 1600s! I saw a scan of my grandfather’s birth certificate (mostly unreadable in Dutch), but most other records cannot be verified by me except that the names and dates are the same in multiple different genealogy recordings. Apparently Holland (now Netherlands) is full of my relatives, and how wonderful some are interested in genealogy! Too bad I cannot find how to contact them.

How to incorporate this genealogy into the book of stories? I am using MS Publisher (included in the MS Office suite) to create family trees, then using MS Word to list the relatives and their information and interesting tidbits. Did you know there was an “Old Man’s Draft” registration for WWII? My grandfather registered when he was 45 year old. This was not for military service, but to determine skills useful for the home front war effort. Only a scan of the card remains, not the questionnaire. Some of my relatives came to the US to avoid the looming spectre of war (WWI) in Europe. Most came because everyone else was going. “One after another we went to America . . . We thought gold was lying in the streets,” but when they arrived they found Chicago was so dirty! There must be something to that scrubby Dutch stereotype of cleanliness, but in those days (early 1900s) the city was full of smoke and much of the area had dirt streets and plenty of mud when it rained. During rains, they drove their horses and wagonload of vegetables down the street car track – too bad for the streetcar following behind! [“Scrubby Dutch” actually refers to German immigrants who regularly scrubbed their doorsteps and sidewalks – the scrubby Deutsche – but the Dutch kept their streets clean, too.]

I am also incorporating some history of Chicagoland in those times, to give context to their stories, which leads me to another chipmunk warren full of information. Squeak!


the hay press forms bales (coming out the chute on the right side)

See how an old-fashioned hay press works


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Sad stories of heroin addiction

Another local teen bit the dust. One year out of high school. Her obituary stated cause of death as heroin overdose and was a long tribute to an obviously well-loved girl who dreamed of a future in science. A photo showed a girl with a gentle face and clear eyes. She appeared to be a good girl from a supportive family. What stories she could have lived! I could imagine the pain her parents went through trying to save her, and the neverending pain now. I thought of my own child during her troubled high school years, and how frightened I was that she would not make it through alive and unhurt by drugs (she did!). I remember a classmate she brought home one day, trying to keep him distracted from demons while he tried to kick heroin. One day wasn’t good enough.

Years ago, a PBS special on drugs made a big impression on me. Apparently doing heroin even once could open the door wide to addiction. Just once! That first-time rush of euphoria is so incredible that you want to keep chasing after it, and the end is torment and early death. Why would our kids choose that? And now we have an opioid epidemic, and heroin is cheaper than opioids once you run through your parents’ stash.

The below memoirs have received good reviews from recovering addicts (and addicts’ families) and end with hope. As with all addictions, recovery is an ongoing journey.

The Bitter Taste of Dying by Jason Smith –High school football player keeps his addiction through college and overseas, became a writer and journalist, married with kids.

The Big Fix: Hope After Heroin by Tracey Helton Mitchell – Studious good girl during high school falls for drugs during college, became a mother and an activist for recovery, 19 years free now. Tracey was featured in the 1999 documentary Black Tar Heroin: The Dark End of the Street.

April is National Poetry Month. Emotional pain inspires me to write poems, and so I wrote a poem for this girl and all the kids who have died from drugs. It’s written as song lyrics, and I am hoping somebody will put it to music and sing it out. Teens may not listen to grownups, but they do listen to music.

Can’t Let Go

You found me in the crowd, or I found you,
Seems so long ago, but that can’t be true
I can’t remember cuz my mind’s so blind
My night’s so dark, can’t find a light to shine
All I really know is that I can’t let go
I’m tired of crying, but I can’t let go
You whispered so softly in my ear,
I tried to resist but your voice so clear
I remember when my heart grew weak
The sound is fading, I can barely speak
All I know is that I can’t let go
I’m tired of crying, but I can’t let go
You called to me like you knew my need
You were everything I wanted you to be
You blew my mind and you held me right
Like no one else could in all my life
You were starburst in my atmosphere
Telling me there was nothing left to fear
(Nothing left to fear, nothing left to fear)
You told me lies but I didn’t see
Didn’t want to know where you were leading me
Remember my friends how they loved you, too
We were all like birds look how high we flew
I don’t ever want to let you go
I’m tired of crying, but I can’t let go
One day I’m going to break away
Leaving you cold while I hope and pray
Remembering when I once was strong
Now all I got is my sorry song
I gotta try hard to let you go
I’m tired of crying, but can I let you go
You called to me like you knew my need
You were everything I wanted you to be
But you blew my mind and I gave up the fight
And no one else could help me find my life
Where is the sun in my atmosphere
Telling me there was nothing left to fear
(I got everything, everything to fear)
Cuz I can’t . . ..let go
I can’t . . . let go

© Linda E. Austin 3/2017



Posted in book talk, death, overcoming, poems, raising kids | Tagged | 5 Comments