“Australian history has been transformed by the contributions of family historians”, says Dr Tanya Evans, historian at Sydney’s Macquarie University. Her new book Fractured Families: Life on the Margins in Colonial New South Wales, is the result of collaboration between Tanya Evans and some of the many family historians who have worked with the archives of Sydney’s oldest non-religious charity, The Benevolent Society.
“… genealogists are becoming the new social historians…”, remarks Evans in the prologue. She points to the painstaking research conducted by family historians which has revealed the lives of those of their forebears who were numbered among the poor and the outcast. Fractured Families is about those forgotten people of history and their descendants who cared enough to learn more about the difficult lives of their forebears.
The interest Evans has about the lives of poor people bubbles through the book as does her admiration of the work done by family historians. She sees great value in the work of family historians noting that, “… the more people who become involved in the endeavour, the richer and more democratic our knowledge will be.”
Fractured Families is an easy book to pick up and put down. Each chapter has a new set of stories about the lives of those who sought assistance from The Benevolent Society during the long nineteenth century and the wealthier people who contributed to the care of the impoverished. The narrative meanders around the events of an eclectic group of lives. It is effectively a series of cameos. Sometimes the reader can engage with the people of the past, at other times the information conveyed is too fragmentary for the reader to feel moved by their stories.
The impact of these stories may have been greater if the photos that are bunched onto photo pages in the middle of the book had instead been inserted at the relevant places in the text. When dealing with fragmentary history, photos are a rich historical source which convey the story more powerfully if there are not enough words in the archives. Fractured Families includes two disturbing photos of emaciated babies which would have made the telling of the cold statistics of starvation and infant mortality in Sydney more potent if they had accompanied the relevant text. Unfortunately the high cost of producing books with photos scattered through the text is a serious limit in the effective use of photographs in the telling of histories such as this one.
This book does not have literary pretensions – there are too many “as described in chapter X” or “these are explored in chapter X” for that. The language used is very accessible with the occasional use of words such as ‘gendered’ or ‘power relations’ and a political earnestness which reflect the author’s academic roots. As befitting someone with Tanya Evans experience as a historical consultant for popular television programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are? Evans has written a book that any general reader will find easy to read.