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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Tag Archives | diary

In Her Own Words:
The Impact of Personal Accounts on Biography

I admit it. I am a his­to­ry nerd.

Like all biog­ra­phers, I am fas­ci­nat­ed by the past. I love learn­ing about the world of long ago: what peo­ple wore, what they ate, the jobs they had, the wars they fought.  And noth­ing thrills me more when I am research­ing than to dis­cov­er a first­hand account, a per­son­al writ­ing … a pri­ma­ry source.

How do first­hand accounts help biog­ra­phers? Here are some exam­ples.

Biog­ra­phers put their read­ers “in the moment’ when they use a subject’s own words.

Bold Women of MedicineIn her book, Bold Women of Med­i­cine, author Susan Lat­ta describes the filthy, rat infest­ed hos­pi­tal Flo­rence Nightin­gale encoun­tered when she treat­ed sol­diers dur­ing the Crimean War. Lat­ta details these des­per­ate con­di­tions for her read­ers, infus­ing her descrip­tion with Flo­rence Nightingale’s own words from let­ters writ­ten at the time:

We have not a basin nor a tow­el nor a bit of soap nor a broom—I have ordered 300 scrub­bing brush­es … one half of the Bar­rack is so sad­ly out of repair that it is impos­si­ble to use a drop of water on the stone floors, which are all laid upon rot­ten wood, and would give our men fever in no time … I am get­ting a screen now for the ampu­ta­tions … “

When Lat­ta includes this can­did account in her writ­ing, she makes read­ers sit up and take notice. There is no dis­put­ing how awful things were. Nightingale’s own words make the con­di­tions real.

Biog­ra­phers use per­son­al writ­ings to get a glimpse into their subject’s per­son­al­i­ty, which helps with the por­tray­al of the sub­ject.

In my book, Aim for the Skies, I tell the sto­ry of an air race between two women, Jer­rie Mock and Joan Mer­ri­am Smith, in the 1960’s. Because the 1960’s are fair­ly recent his­to­ry, I was able to find a great deal of infor­ma­tion about the race—from both pri­ma­ry and sec­ondary sources—when I con­duct­ed my research. But I want­ed more. I want­ed to know the pilots. What were they real­ly like? What made them tick?

Three-Eight CharlieJer­rie Mock’s auto­bi­og­ra­phy, Three Eight Char­lie, gave me the insight I desired.  It gave me a much need­ed glimpse into Jerrie’s per­son­al­i­ty. News­pa­per accounts por­trayed Jer­rie as busi­ness-like and capa­ble, which she was, but pas­sages from her auto­bi­og­ra­phy revealed more. Not sur­pris­ing­ly, Jer­rie had a keen com­pet­i­tive nature:

I had just kept qui­et about the burned-out motor, so that no one would try to stop me. And since I couldn’t main­tain radio con­tact all of the time, I was care­ful to stay clear of clouds, so I wouldn’t run into anoth­er plane. I didn’t know how far back Joan Smith might be, and I didn’t intend to lose a race around the world because of a stu­pid burned out motor.”

But she also was vul­ner­a­ble and sec­ond guessed her­self at times:

I didn’t like to admit it, but I was ner­vous. There must have been an over­cast, because I couldn’t see any stars. There was no moon either. The soft red glow from the instru­ment lights was a soli­tary pool of light in the black night. Out­side, Charlie’s three nav­i­ga­tion lights and bright, flash­ing-red bea­con would be burn­ing in the emp­ty sky. But they weren’t where I could see them. I felt ter­ri­bly alone … I said a prayer. Lots of prayers.”

As I researched, I dis­cov­ered arti­cles authored by Joan Mer­ri­am Smith, too. In those writ­ings, Joan pro­vid­ed her own—sometimes very different—account of the race.  Talk about inter­est­ing! It was appar­ent from all these per­son­al writ­ings that Jer­rie and Joan were two smart, feisty women.

Biog­ra­phers use per­son­al writ­ings to reveal the fla­vor of the times. 

Miss Colfax's LightAs a biog­ra­ph­er, get­ting a sense of the era and my subject’s place in it may be my favorite thing about per­son­al accounts. That cer­tain­ly was the case with Har­ri­et Col­fax, the light­house keep­er I wrote about in Miss Colfax’s Light.

As part of her light­house keep­ing duties, Har­ri­et Col­fax had to keep a dai­ly log. Harriet’s log entries were a trea­sure trove of infor­ma­tion about her life, her work, and the dan­gers of Great Lakes ship­ping in the late 1800’s. They were full of Harriet’s musings—and occa­sion­al com­plaints. I read through decades of Harriet’s log entries, ulti­mate­ly com­ing to the con­clu­sion that the refrain I used in the book of “I can do this,” was some­thing Har­ri­et def­i­nite­ly would have repeat­ed over and over.

In addi­tion to pro­vid­ing great facts, though, Harriet’s log entries show­cased the lan­guage of the day: tra­di­tion­al words and phras­es, and an over­all for­mal­i­ty.  A num­ber of log entries are includ­ed in the book so young read­ers can get a sense of how dif­fer­ent­ly peo­ple spoke in the late 1800’s.

Miss Colfax's Light

Miss Colfax's Light

Per­son­al accounts allow biog­ra­phers to add rich­ness and authen­tic­i­ty to their work. They pro­vide a true sense of a subject’s view of the world. They pro­vide his­tor­i­cal facts and con­text. All of which makes the biographer’s job eas­i­er.

And, let’s face it, per­son­al accounts are just plain fun to read.

They are a lit­tle gift to the his­to­ry nerd in all of us. 

Tips for Stu­dents

How can stu­dents learn to mine the rich ter­ri­to­ry of a first­hand account (and expe­ri­ence the thrill biog­ra­phers get when they are lucky enough to dis­cov­er such a source)? Here are some ques­tions stu­dents and teach­ers can ask that will help them glean more than just the facts:

  1. What was the writer’s pur­pose for writ­ing this per­son­al account? Does this pur­pose make you think the writ­ing is more or less truth­ful?
  2. What his­tor­i­cal facts does the writer include in the per­son­al account? How is the writer’s world dif­fer­ent from today? How is it the same?
  3. What do the lan­guage, gram­mar, and word usage in the per­son­al account tell us about the writer? Was the writer poor, rich, well-edu­cat­ed?  
  4. If the writer is describ­ing an event from his­to­ry, why is the writer’s point of view impor­tant?
  5. What else can you tell about the writer from this per­son­al account?
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Bookstorm: Catherine, Called Birdy

Catherine Called Birdy Bookstorm

In this Bookstorm™:

Catherine, Called BirdyCatherine, Called Birdy

writ­ten by Karen Cush­man
pub­lished by Clar­i­on Books, 1994
New­bery Hon­or book

Cor­pus Bones! I utter­ly loathe my life.”

Cather­ine feels trapped. Her father is deter­mined to mar­ry her off to a rich man–any rich man, no mat­ter how awful. But by wit, trick­ery, and luck, Cather­ine man­ages to send sev­er­al would-be hus­bands pack­ing. Then a shag­gy-beard­ed suit­or from the north comes to call–by far the old­est, ugli­est, most revolt­ing suit­or of them all. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, he is also the rich­est. Can a sharp-tongued, high-spir­it­ed, clever young maid­en with a mind of her own actu­al­ly lose the bat­tle against an ill-man­nered, pig-like lord and an unimag­i­na­tive, greedy toad of a father? Deus! Not if Cather­ine has any­thing to say about it!” 

Arranged Mar­riages. From the begin­ning of Cather­ine, Called Birdy, our hero­ine is aware that she will be mar­ried off to a man who can bring her father more land and more world­ly goods, an alliance, some­thing of mon­e­tary val­ue. She is par­tic­u­lar­ly deter­mined not to let this hap­pen. We rec­om­mend oth­er books writ­ten for teens about arranged mar­riages. 

Birds. Cather­ine has many bird­cages filled with winged friends in her bed­room. They bring her peace of mind and she trea­sures them. From true sto­ries about birds, field guides, to alarm over the dis­ap­pear­ance of song­birds, there are bird books to intro­duce to your read­ers. 

Cru­sades. With many eyes focused on the Mid­dle East, it is like­ly that you’re find­ing inter­est in the his­to­ry of the con­flicts there. Cather­ine, Called Birdy is set at a time when reli­gious and mil­i­tary war­riors are return­ing to Eng­land from the Cru­sades. We rec­om­mend sev­er­al excel­lent nobels and biogra­phies set dur­ing this time. 

Embroi­dery. The women in Birdy’s home embroi­der. They couldn’t go out and buy ready-made clothes so the only way to make clothes pret­ti­er was to dec­o­rate them with pat­terns of thread. Does some­one in your class already embroi­der? Will you sched­ule an embroi­dery demon­stra­tion for your class­room? You’ll find some books with pat­terns that will appeal to the crafters among your stu­dents. 

Fleas. Hygiene wasn’t as well-known in Birdy’s day. House were not as pro­tect­ed from the ele­ments. Fleas were a fact of life. They caused per­son­al dis­com­fort but they also caused plagues and changed pol­i­tics. Cer­tain­ly there will be those stu­dents in your class­room who will be intrigued. 

Illu­mi­nat­ed Man­u­scripts. Birdy’s broth­er works at a monastery where they are illu­mi­nat­ing man­u­scripts. We rec­om­mend sev­er­al web­sites that will help you demon­strate this fore­run­ner of the print­ing press. 

Journals/Diaries. Catherine’s sto­ry is told in first per­son in the form of a diary she’s keep­ing. Many stu­dents are asked to keep jour­nals. Here are sev­er­al favorite books told in this for­mat. 

Judaism: the Edict of Expul­sion. Few peo­ple real­ize that Edward I ordered all Jews to leave Eng­land for­ev­er on July 18, 1290. Birdy meets a group of Jews who are depart­ing and finds it hard to under­stand how they are any dif­fer­ent than she and her fam­i­ly. We ref­er­ence arti­cles that will give more back­ground on this top­ic. 

Medieval Life. Nov­els, pic­ture books, and true sto­ries for young read­ers have often been set in the medieval world. We offer sug­ges­tions for a num­ber of them, rang­ing from Adam of the Road, pub­lished in 1943, to Stephen Biesty’s Cross-Sec­tions Cas­tle from 2013. 

Peer­age and Nobil­i­ty. Whether you’re fas­ci­nat­ed by the titles used in Eng­land or you find them con­fus­ing, here are a few guides to enhance your stu­dents’ under­stand­ing. 

Saints Days. Birdy pref­aces each of her jour­nal entries with the reflec­tion of a saint whose day was cel­e­brat­ed on that day. We’ve found a few ref­er­ences that will explain who these peo­ple were and why they became saints from an his­tor­i­cal view­point. 

Women’s History/Coming of Age. At the heart of Birdy’s sto­ry is the fact that she is leav­ing child­hood behind and becom­ing a young woman. We’ve includ­ed rec­om­men­da­tions for books on this theme that include fic­tion­al and true sto­ries over a wide span of years..

Tech­niques for using each book:

Downloadables


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Gifted: The Matchbox Diary

When a young girl vis­its her great-grand­­fa­ther for the first time, her imag­i­na­tion swirls with every­thing she sees in his antique shop. He asks her to pick out her favorite item and he will tell her a sto­ry about it. She choos­es a cig­ar box filled with match box­es. As it turns out, this is […]

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