On Positive Distractions and Research Revelations

A few years ago, I decided that I wanted to write a book-length project about my childhood growing up as the daughter of a man completely obsessed with canoing and whitewater rivers. I had a pretty normal American upper-middle class childhood, except for the paddling.

My life was completely overshadowed by our parallel existence on the banks of the creeks in the middle of nowhere. When I was in elementary school, it wasn’t uncommon for us to spend nearly every weekend at slalom canoe races, or driving 12 hours to eastern North Carolina to paddle for a single day.

At first, I thought the project might work best if I set it up as a kind of memoir/history of the various rivers in Arkansas where I spent most of my time. I thought this might appeal to regional publishers. I started with Big Piney Creek in Pope County, Arkansas. It is the river where Dad and I both learned to paddle. It was also the daily landscape of my ancestors, who all settled in Bullfrog Valley (a slice of bottom land along Big Piney) in the 19th century.

I thought it might be a good idea to start with a little explanation of our family’s home landscape, considering the entire project was about “place.” I knew a little bit about how my Dad’s side of my family came to live in Bullfrog Valley, but I didn’t know all the details. I knew less about my mother’s side of the family.

I borrowed what family records I could find and got to work. I immediately fell into a bottomless chasm of tantalizingly partial information, a series of cold facts that started to add up to a story and then lost the thread, and little theories that I can probably never verify. Of course, I became totally obsessed.

My original project shifted completely. Instead of writing a book length project about growing up paddling, I found myself writing shorter essays on more specific incidents during my childhood. I have one on the subject coming out in Divide any week now. I had another broadcast during the September issue of a local NPR show, Tales from the South, last year.

Five years later, I am still digging around trying to find out as much as I can about my ancestors. I’ve turned into one of those people who thinks a nice long weekend trudging around rural Mississippi looking for an old family cemetery is the pinnacle of good times.

At some point, I had to ask myself a question I ask my students regularly: What exactly is my thesis here? I no longer knew where the project was going. I was constantly gathering new information about the family and their 150 year journey from Ireland to Arkansas, but I didn’t know what it meant.

I’m one of the lucky few who embarks on a genealogical journey with good family records for at least one line. The Bartons have excellent records all the way back to 1685, when my great-grandfather Isaac was born in Killaloe, Ireland. His wife, Sarah Vesey, was born in Limerick the same year.

They became the focus of the first big unanswerable question and the impetus for my first big “aha moment” that finally solidified the project for me. My next few posts will be about Isaac and Sarah and how they helped me figure out what I’m really writing about.

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