Saturday, June 11, 2011

Book Review - Time Traveller's Handbook by Althea Douglas

I was delighted when asked if I would be willing to read and review some new releases in genealogy books from Dundurn Publishing.  I was even more excited when I got my first email asking me to choose between Time Traveller's Handbook: A Guide to the Past by Althea Douglas and A Better Place by Susan Smart.

A Better Place was described as a book which "delves into the practices around death and burial throughout nineteenth-century Ontario and surrounding areas.  The pioneer funeral is described in detail, as well as important sources of funeral customs, including the origins of embalming.  Gain a better perspective of our ancestors' celebrations, and find tips for finding death and burial records to aid in your research."

Time Traveller's Handbook: A Guide to the Past was described as "a compendium of all those random facts from which a family historian can benefit when researching their ancestors:  How long did it take to sail the Atlantic Ocean?  What kind of impact did the steam engine and the telephone have on everyday life?  Explore these interesting facts and more!"

Both seemed so interesting that it was a hard decision to make, but I had to choose one so I went with Althea Douglas' book.  I was not disappointed.

My book arrived at the beginning of May so I made sure to bring it with me to the NGS conference, intending to blog at night and then read before going to bed.  Oh, how naive I was!  These things just don't happen and conferences can be so exhausting (and terribly fun)!  I finally finished the book last weekend, just in time for Cub Scout Day Camp to start, so my review had to wait until today.  You will undoubtedly finish the book much faster than I did if you can give it just a few days of your attention.  It is simply filled with lots of wonderful information, is a quick read and difficult to put down once you start!

Time Traveller's Handbook is written for a Canadian audience, but don't let that deter you.  There is so much information in the book (some of which I will touch on in a moment) that is transportable.  It works for so many regions.  Some may not transfer exactly as it would in Canadian research, but you can still take away the essence and it might just make that light bulb click inside your head for one of those good ol' "Ah-ha!" moments.  An example of this was near the end of the book when Ms. Douglas talked of everyone in Quebec having a family notary [pg 237].

She mentions, "Everyone in Quebec had a family notary, and notarial records exist from the beginnings of the colony.  If you have family documents, a lease, marriage contract, or estate papers, one of these should give the notary's name and the date on the document gives a point in time.  Then check the annual lists of the Chambre des Notaires."

She also points out that notaries were required to keep their contracts and documents indefinitely.  SCORE!  So if your family wasn't from Canada, can you use this information?  Heck ya!  Have you thought of checking with notaries?  Have you checked out which records were required to be kept and for how long among various agencies?  We in the U.S. were a colony once.  How far back do your ancestors go?  It may be significant.

Ms. Dounglas' book is easy to read, indexed thoroughly and chaptered clearly.  She does an excellent job touching on a wide range of subjects in a 341 page book (which includes the appendices, index and citations).  Some of the various subject areas she touches on include the value of money, military heritage, those legends 9real or not) of being descended from nobility, the home, trades, and travel.

Some of my favorite excerpts from Time Traveller's Handbook:

- In reference to the translation of surnames, "In a French-speaking area, for example, spelling Douglas with a double s, i.e. "Douglass," allows Francophones to pronounce the name properly, instead of asking for 'Madame Dooglah.'" [pg. 41]

I've always known that it is important to take into consideration spelling variations and that how a name was pronounced in it's original language can help to trace your family, but not having ever studied French, this was really interesting for me.  French has always been an absolute mystery to me in regards to pronunciation!

- Latin words and abbreviations.  Not an all inclusive list, but so very important to consider!  how many kids get to study Latin anymore!?!  What do you think that will do in the future to research?  Latin was and still is a part of our society.  Yes, it was more frequently used and studied in the past, but it has become a part of many phrases in our society, many times to the point where we don't know the real meaning of the words and abbreviations.

One of my favorite examples given, "fl. ca. 1735 means that someone floruit circa or flourished about 1735.  This tells us an individual named in the particular record was clearly alive about that date (or dates), but neither birth nor death dates are known." [pg. 44]

- The value of money, well, sometimes a simple conversion calculator isn't enough.  Yes, it may give you the equivalent in today's currency for the time and place you are looking for (and place does matter as well as time), but Ms. Douglas points out, "When judging the past, it is important to recognize what lifestyle an individual was expected to maintain before evaluation their income." [pg. 100-101]

It would be imprudent to simply judge by someone's income without looking at their place in society.  If you were to compare a tradesman's income with that of a lady or gentleman, the tradesman would look impoverished by that comparison.  Upon closer inspection you could find that while the tradesman may have earned much less, he wasn't expected to have as lavish a lifestyle, so what we may think is a small amount may have actually provided quite a comfortable life for his family.  Likewise, simply because a gentleman had more money didn't mean that he had enough to live the way society expected...think Sir Walter Elliot's situation in when needing to rent his home out in Jane Austen's Persuasion.

There is so much more I could write, such as useful conventions for annotating you own thought on a transcription, cross-writing (a very cool way of writing as much as you can while saving paper/space and postage that some ancestors may have used), and transient/temporary labor, just to name a few.

If you are looking for an all-encompassing book that tells you everything you ever wanted to know about life during your ancestor's time, this may not be the book for you.  If you are looking for a wonderful overview on how life changed for and was lived by our ancestors, then this is an excellent book.  Ms. Douglas cites her sources beautifully and give additional ideas for further, in-depth reading on the various areas she covers.  It is truly an excellent book to grant a genealogist, family historian, or casual history buff a perspective on what life was like and how greatly things have and have not changed over the centuries.

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