March 2010 Family Archivist: Little Girl on the Prairie

March 2010 Family Archivist: Little Girl on the Prairie

A mother-daughter oral history project becomes a compelling read of a Depression-era childhood on the prairie.

When attorney Deborah Prutzman began recording her mother’s childhood memories of Depression-era Kansas, she never imagined the result would be a published book—and an entirely new understanding of her mother.
“When my father died, I realized a lot of memories were irrevocably lost,” Prutzman says. “But still it didn’t get me moving. Then about two years ago, Mom’s last living relative of her generation died. I finally decided I needed to help Mom find and record her memories before they were gone, too.”
And the result of the mother-daughter effort is staggering. Addie Sorace’s first 20 years turned into 200 pages of compelling storyline. “It’s a coming-of-age story,” Prutzman says. “She was a child who had a difficult relationship with her mother, and her extended family gathered around her and found a way for her to escape her mother.” They published it as Addie of the Flint Hills: A Prairie Child During the Depression (KTAV Publishing House).
Her mother wrote everything out, and Prutzman transcribed her words and brought back printouts. “She’d read it, make comments, add memories and tell me where I made mistakes,” Prutzman says. “She and I would have a cup of coffee, and I’d take notes on my Blackberry. Wonderful things came from those conversations.”
Initially, it wasn’t easy for Sorace, now 94, to tell her whole story. “For a while she was trying to tell me just the good things in life and minimize the difficult things,” Prutzman recalls. “It took a little time to develop a sense of trust between us. But there was something big that happened when she shared the fullness of life. It made it a more interesting and powerful story.”
Several techniques helped jog Sorace’s memories. “We found photographs, other authors’ books, music, videos, and looked at them together,” Prutzman says. “They would trigger memories. I went online and got a history of the US from 1915 to 1935. I sat down with her and asked, ‘Do you remember anything about this event, or that one?’”
Prutzman researched historical details at state and county historical societies and the Pioneer Bluffs Museum in the Flint Hills of Kansas. The two women also contacted extended family members for more information on long-deceased relatives. “It was a lot of work,” says Prutzman, who initially intended to spend 15 minutes a day on the project but often ended up engrossed for hours.
Getting to know extended family was a bonus. Cousins and other relatives shared photographs and memories that otherwise would have been lost. The two women, in return, shared a fuller picture of their common ancestors than any of them previously had. “Their descendents didn’t know them as ‘real’ people,” says Prutzman of her ancestors. “But everyone in the book is good and bad, like any normal person.”
As the project progressed, Prutzman learned important lessons about letting her mother’s story unfold in its own way. “Incidents that didn’t seem significant in the beginning became very significant in the broader context of the story. Also, I recognized that this was mom’s story, and she got to be the last judge about everything.”
For example, Sorace had a difficult relationship with her mother, which comes through clearly in the book. “I probably felt more sympathy toward my grandmother than my mom did. I felt she was an educated woman in a hard situation. Mom felt her mother was a poor mother.
“As much as I wanted to find the reasons and excuses for her behavior, what remains is my mother’s memory,” Prutzman says. “I did try to put in some of the outside facts that may have had a bearing. But the bottom line is that she had a very bad relationship with her mother, and there seem to be no excuses.”
The best part of the project for Prutzman was getting to know her mother in an entirely new way. “We grew closer. We’ve always been close, but it became a collaboration. That’s a relationship I hadn’t had with my mom. It was quite exciting and precious. I saw my mother as a barefoot girl in Kansas before there was electricity, and I fell in love with the spirit of that little girl. It’s something I never would have understood if I hadn’t written that book with Mom.”

From the March 2010 Family Tree Magazine

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