History, Heritage, and the Stories We Tell

On Monday, we celebrated the Memorial Day holiday, a day set aside to honor those who have served in the military and to remember those who gave their life for our nation.  My thoughts went quickly to my grandfather, a WWI veteran who filled my head with stories of his wartime exploits in France.

WWIYes, in many ways, I had a rather odd childhood. Along with “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”, I heard tales of Ypres and the fighting in France.

Both my grandfather and his brother served in the first World War. My grandfather, in fact, saved his brother’s life — although that was one story he never told. I learned of it only after his death. In looking back, I can recall occasional references to it, but I didn’t know the details.

My grandfather was a rather brash, bold gentleman, the sort of fellow who saw what needed to be done…and did it.

I don’t know the name of the battlefield on which my great-uncle nearly lost his life, but as the medics walked about the dead and wounded after the battle ended, they marked those who could be saved. Ones with little or no chance of survival were passed by.

The medics walked past Michael Zungs, shook their heads, and moved on.

“He’s not going to make it,” they said.

Yes, he was going to make it, and my grandfather made certain of it. He slipped into the medic’s tent, stole a white coat, and slipped it over his uniform. He then made the rounds again, marking his brother as one to save.


Missouri WarSeveral years ago, I began exploring family history in a bit more depth. I found fascinating stories of experiences during the War Between the States. Digging deeper still, I came to appreciate not just my family stories but my cultural heritage. I learned a great deal about “The German Experience” during the Civil War era here in the hotly-divided “border state” of Missouri.

It was a place of terror.  Confederates roamed the countryside calling out Union supporters and executing them in cold blood.

Yes, I could tell you the tale of how my great-great-grandfather’s life was spared because of his son’s poor English, but that’s another story for another time.

My point here is that we all have stories. We have a family heritage that has played a role in history. We each have a culture filled with traditions, beliefs, stories, and ways of looking at the world around us.  It’s important for us to explore that heritage, be it Jewish, Russian, Latin American, Irish…or whatever.

It’s important for us as authors. It’s also important for us, I think, as human beings.  It helps to know the past, and to see ways in which it’s shaped us.  The more we know about who we are and where we’ve come from, the richer our writing will be, the more depth our stories and characters will have, and the stronger the connections will become between the words we write and the people who read them.

2 thoughts on “History, Heritage, and the Stories We Tell

  1. Wow, what an intense and interesting read! I remember the story about poor English saving your ancestors. Your grandfather’s deed will stay stuck in my head, too.
    And I agree that it is important to know about where we come from in order to know where we can go to. It’s something some protagonists in my stories realize, although I personally still shy away a little from my family background. (Not that there aren’t fascinating anecdotes to tell…)

    • I think it’s especially important for historical authors to look at the role a character’s heritage plays. The American Civil War is an interesting example of how cultural differences came into play. While people often think of it as a war over slavery, it also involved questions of “states’ rights.” German immigrants in the US tended to favor a strong central government, primarily because of their experiences in Europe where there was constant warfare between rulers of small principalities. They were weary of it and believed the best solution was a strong government that controlled all the states. The Irish immigrants, on the other hand, came from a place where a dominant ruler had exercised too much power. They wanted power in the hands of smaller groups — such as the states. They tended to be pro-Confederacy. Individually, people might have been the same, more or less, but their culture backgrounds made them vastly different.

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