In 2011 I read a review about a new book by travel writer Jennifer Wilson called Running Away to Home. This was no ordinary travel book; this was a "family history meets travel" book. This type of family history research goes beyond sitting in an archive looking for documents or hoping to find an ancestor in an online subscription database. This family history chronicles the year Jennifer and her family spent living in the home of her ancestors, Croatia. I ran out and bought the book, which I later reviewed for the online newsletter GenWeekly.
Fast forward a year. I recently got the chance to interview Jennifer and talk about the new paperback edition of Running Away to Home available October 2nd. I highly recommend this book and was excited at the chance to share this interview with readers.
Gena: Your book is a chronicle of an adventure that I have always wanted to do. Had you always want to travel to your ancestor’s homeland? What would you say to someone who wants to do what you did, sell everything and live in an ancestor’s homeland for a year?
Jennifer: I have always been restless. I have always been interested in history. I'm probably the only family member on my mom's side who was curious about the immigrant ancestors. But it wasn't until I was a mom in search of something to pass on to my kids that I yearned to travel back to our roots.
I would say that we are very fortunate to live in a country in which most anything is possible with hard work and conscientious actions. That's the gift of our ancestors! We should take advantage of that extravagance by living the life that we want to live. There is nothing in the way of a year abroad except hard work and solid planning. Get the book The Family Sabbatical Handbook by Elisa Bernick and start planning.
Gena: What’s new in the paperback edition of Running Away to Home?
Jennifer: We've added an epilogue, travel photos from the journey, and antique recipes that I gathered in the village. It also includes recipes I mentioned in the story, such as Jim's Mom's Oatmeal Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies, which are the bomb. And my magical peach cobbler! The legal department of St. Martin's Press wouldn't let me publish the rakija recipe that I eventually discovered, though. Boo them!
I'm celebrating all the great new stuff on my blog, where I'm publishing antique recipes submitted by readers from all over the world.
Gena: Are you still researching your family history?
Jennifer: I'm learning more every time I schedule an appearance at a Croatian Club in the U.S., or at book readings, where Croatian-Americans show up and tell me new things. It's amazing, how we're all connected in some way, isn't it? It blows my mind that war still exists, knowing what I do about how there's some thread of connection to almost every human on earth. I just found out the other day that Croatians may have actually come from an area near Afghanistan, and it blew my mind.
Gena: What research tips would you have for family historians with Croatian roots?
Jennifer: If you're from the Mrkopalj area, as my family is, check out the Facebook page called Descendents of Mrkopalj. We all connect on there, and there are some incredibly astute genealogists on there. You can even start there to see if anyone knows someone who can help out with your ancestral searches. Get in touch with area churches with Croatian roots, too, and Croatian-American societies. All treasure troves. My own Running Away to Home Facebook page is a good place to make Croatian connections. Lots of Croatian-Americans show up on there wanting to know if anyone is related to them. It's a nice family that way.
Gena: It’s apparent that having a sense of the history of the area was crucial to the information you did find. Do you have tips for family historians about finding history that informs your genealogical research?
Jennifer: I would say be fearless about history. Sometimes, I hear stories from genealogists who stopped working on their histories when they found out something upsetting or terribly unpleasant. Just remember: It's better for us to know the past, to face it, so that our children understand where we've been. If we don't know about the mistakes that were made, we're missing pieces of the story that should guide us into the future. More information is always better than not enough. It's true in reporting, it's true in genealogy, it's true in life.
Gena: Any plans to run away again?
Jennifer: Of course! We're doing some initial research on the area of France where Jim's mother's family is from. It's all about food and booze around there -- a much more fitting tone for Jim's life story. My story is all touchy-feely. His will be about meeting grumpy old vintners.
Gena: What’s next for you?
Jennifer: I've got a novel that you should be seeing before too very long. And the travel research that will hopefully shape into a book. I also hope to put a new roof on my chicken coop before winter, so that's looming.