A Genealogy How-To Guide by Maria Sutton, author of The Night Sky

I was recently given the chance to read an inspiring memoir, The Night Sky. (Review here) Author Maria Sutton takes us on her journey across the ocean to find out more about her family’s history.  Upon finishing the novel I asked Maria if she would put together a piece for the blog  helping those of us out there trying to search for our family’s genealogy.  She happily obliged and below are her ideas! Thanks again Maria!

How does one begin the search for their family’s history?  (A How-To Guide)

First of all, I would like to thank Kim for inviting me to do a guest post on her awesome blog.  The reviews and author interviews are quite entertaining, and I am truly honored to talk about something that most people take for granted: Family.  Kim wanted me to give a primer on how to go about finding your family’s history, and I will do so, but first, I think a reader should ask themselves:  Why search for your family’s history?  Besides the obvious medical history info, I think most people are curious about “from where they came.”  Also, it’s nice to fantasize that you’ve descended from royalty or an international celeb.  Dreams and discovering your place in history are an important part of why people should search for their roots.  Along the way, readers will find heroes, villains, and fascinating characters and probably learn they are fulfilling the dreams of their ancestors.

So, how do you begin searching for your family’s history?  First, the most important thing to remember is to LISTEN very carefully to your family stories.  We’ve all sat around the kitchen table at family gatherings and inevitably the conversation will turn to Aunt Betsy winning a prize for baking the best mince meat pie in Hanover, Pennsylvania, or Great Grandfather Bill who joined the circus when it came to Iowa.  Those are CLUES to places they’ve been.  Write down those clues and put them in a shoebox, or wherever you keep your special cache of information about family.

Second, don’t dismiss anything as being irrelevant.  When I was searching for my biological father, I had hundreds of conversations with my mother, and she mentioned an overwhelming number of towns in Germany.  I wrote down every single town, followed-up with each one of them, and, after decades of getting “no record” responses, almost decided to discontinue that line of research.  During one casual conversation, my mother mentioned the town of Augsberg in Germany.  My initial reaction was that it would be just another town of hundreds I had contacted that would have no record of Jozef.  I decided, what the heck, sending an email to one more town would only take a few minutes, so I nonchalantly sent that email, and, to my utter astonishment – that message is what solved the mystery of my father’s whereabouts!

Third, get your relatives involved in conversations about family – while you still can.  Once they’re gone, they take the family stories and history with them and you won’t be able to ask those vital questions needed to put the pieces of the puzzle together.  When I was in my twenties, I listened to many family stories, many of which did not seem to be significant.  Decades later as I was creating my photo albums and doing write-ups of each family member, I was struck by all the dots I hadn’t connected, and wished I could ask Aunt Ida about the love of her life, or Uncle Claude about his service to America during WWI.   They had their triumphs and tragedies and I wished I had captured that long-ago history.

Once you gather the basic Who, What, When, and Where, the documents you need to get, and where to get them, are:

  • Archives at the County and State Vital Statistics agency will give you Birth, Marriage, and Death Records.  You can find their addresses just by Googling them.
  • Maps
  • Telephone Books
  • National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)
  • Ellis Island
  • Cemetery Records
  • Church Records
  • Immigration Records
  • Gazetteers
  • Military Records
  • American Red Cross
  • Salvation Army
  • Family History Center of the Church of Latter Day Saints
  • Prison Records
  • International Committee of the Red Cross
  • Professional Organizations (Any profession requiring a license, e.g., physician, attorney)
  • School Records
  • Google

You don’t have to be a certified, professional genealogist to track down your family.  Nor do you need to be a trained investigator.  All it takes is perseverance.  Happy hunting, and I’m sure you’ll find the stunning legacies your family has left behind for you.

#8 A Review of The Night Sky by Maria Sutton

The Night Sky: A Journey from Dachau to Denver and BackAnyone who has ever been curious about his or her roots and delved into family genealogy knows they’re bound to find a few surprises.  My own husband’s genealogy search has produced information on countless relatives from the past with some of the most fascinating stories.  Maria Sutton, author of The Night Sky, had other reasons for beginning her genealogy research.  Her mother Julia’s family was torn apart by the horrors and atrocities that occurred both during and after World War II.  As a product of displaced persons camps in her early life before coming to America, Maria is content with her new life in Colorado, far from the postwar entanglements that she and her family suffered.  However, all of this past is brought back into sharp focus as she overhears her mother mentioning a man from her past in a conversation to her friend.  Maria discovers that this man is in fact her biological father, and the man who has raised her for the majority of her life is her stepfather.  Although her mother strongly advises against it, Maria embarks on a journey to meet him and discover the history of how she and her mother came to America.

Upon finishing this novel I was amazed at how much of the Holocaust and WWII is still a mystery to me.  What really appealed to me about The Night Sky was that it gave an account of the war from Eastern Europe’s viewpoint.  When I took a Holocaust history course in college it mostly focused on the war in England, Germany, and France, and didn’t discuss much of Stalin’s invasions through Poland, Ukraine, etc.  Learning new facts (to me) about the war was both heartbreaking and eye-opening.  The one that stands out the most for me was the Katyn Massacre.  Sutton writes:

Stalin had committed one of his most heinous crimes in Katyn Forest, near Smolensk, Russia.  During Russia’s invasion of Poland, 180,000 Polish soldiers were captured.  Of those, 15,000 Polish officers and intellectuals were segregated by the Red Army into different detention centers and transported to the same area used by the Bolsheviks in 1919 for murdering Tsar Nicholas’s officers.  The 15,000 captured officers and intellectuals were loaded into truckers and told they were going home.  But the truckers stopped in Katyn Forest and, one by one, each officer was executed with a bullet to the head and buried in a mass grave.

The novel is packed with facts like these that really do an excellent job on getting Eastern Europe’s story out there.  Often there is a great amount of focus on Hitler’s terrible quest to create a master race, and the atrocities and history of Russia, Poland, the Ukraine, and many other Eastern Bloc countries is buried in the past.  Sutton brings this past to light by telling the story shared by millions as they were touched by the horrors of WWII.

The other portion of the novel, Sutton’s search for her family, is a heart wrenching story filled with lies, betrayal, and fortunately an eventual happy ending.  Sutton’s main goal in the novel is to search for her biological father, Jozef.  My heart broke each time her searches hit a dead-end.  Finding Jozef became as important to me as it did for Sutton.  Her writing skills are fantastic and really pulled me into this search, making me giddy with anticipation every time she found a lead.  Sutton is one tenacious women, using all possible resources (including hiring an ex-KGB officer) to find her family.  Her gripping forty-plus year search is the backbone of this novel, making it one of the most memorable memoirs I’ve ever read.  Harrowing, brutal, and painfully honest, The Night Sky is one novel you MUST add to your to-read pile this year.

5 out of 5 Stars

This is my fourth completed review for the Around The Stack In How Many Ways Challenge

The Night Sky by Maria Sutton
Johnson Books (2011)
Hardcover 240 pages
ISBN: 9781555664466
Special thanks to Maria for sending over a review copy!