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A couple of years ago while I was in New Zealand, a friend who knew of my interest in family history gave me a copy of Tessa Duder’s book In Search of Elisa Marchetti: A Writer’s Search for her Italian Family. My friend’s grandmother was a sister of Duder’s grandmother.
Tessa Duder is a prolific and well-known New Zealand author of children’s books (as well as a medaled swimmer and a pianist). Her lively writing contributes to this being a very readable, interesting chronicle of her attempt to connect with distant relatives in Livorno, Italy. The book also reveals her growing understanding of why family history matters, and how to go about researching it.
Duder’s quest was influenced by Maori people (the Indigenous peoples of New Zealand), for whom whakapapa (a rough translation is genealogy) is very important. Duder explains that, “Maori children are better served by their culture’s emphasis on whakapapa. Taught little history at school, Pakeha [New Zealand European] children are craving it in their families and in an understanding from the past of what it means to be a New Zealander now” (p. 25-26). In her own family, her adult children wanted to know more about who they were:
“Why was I here, why were my adult children eager to know more about their antecedents at a time when the prevailing poplar culture says history is of no account, it’s boring, who cares, let’s live it up in the here and now? The Maori had a good word for it, I said, whanau, which having deeper resonances than simply family, had passed into general use in New Zealand” (p. 91).
Having grown up with fictionalized family myths (such as the idea that the name Ferrari in the family tree was connected with Ferrari cars), Duder finally decided to investigate. So, with only a photo of her great-grandmother and a life-long awareness of Italian ancestry (for instance, her grandmother had loved to sing Italian songs), she decided to seek out long-lost relatives in Livorno, Italy, starting with the Lenzinis (Elisa Marchetti’s married name, less common in Italy than Marchetti).
Duder did her research backwards. As she explains, first she should have gone to the Auckland library, rather than to Italy. But she had no idea of the resources available in the library and online (such as census data, marriage records, death records, and books about researching Italian family history). So she arrived in Livorno without a game plan, other than attempting to contact all the Lenzinis. Much of the book reads like a travelogue of Tuscany, since she spent considerable time sightseeing while awaiting responses (she got very few, none useful).
In the Livorno archives, however, she struck gold with a scholarly essay published in 1938 about the emigration of 300 Livornese to New Zealand, twenty years earlier than she had been aware of any such emigration.
When she returned to New Zealand, using resources available in the Auckland Central Library, Duder found reference this wave of Italian immigration, as well as records that allowed her to piece together her own family’s story (a process that was complicated by her great-grandparents emigrating under the names of other family members).
For readers of Italian ancestry, this book may offer some useful resources (particularly its appendix of resources). For all readers interested in family history, I see it as providing two important insights.
First, the histories of poor people as well as women tend to be neglected, which distorts what we know. Duder shows that the history of her Italian immigrant ancestors, who were very poor (her great-grandfather worked as a sand-shoveller at the time of emigration), shed important light on New Zealand immigrant history. During the 1870s, the New Zealand colonial government had sought skilled workers in specific trades, contracting with Italy, since immigration from Germany had slowed; the New Zealand government agreed to pay costs of transportation and lodging on arrival. In Livorno, the man who took the job of recruiting was contracted to send a target number of people. Since he couldn't get enough volunteers with the specific skills New Zealand wanted, he began to accept anyone, which turned into disaster for the recruits. The immigration process itself required a long train ride to Hamburg, then four months at sea to New Zealand (the ship’s surgeon’s records, available through the library in Auckland, gave an extraordinarily detailed account of the voyage). On arrival in Wellington, the lack of fit between the immigrants’ skills and those the New Zealand government expected became obvious. The New Zealand government tried unsuccessfully to resettle them in different locations where they might be able to find work. Eventually, those who remained in New Zealand (some went to Australia, some returned to Italy) were brought back to Wellington where they survived as best they could, given limited work options and strong local resentment.
Writing about the invisibility of women in history, Duder commented: “As a wife and a foreigner and a Roman Catholic in a land where the white, Protestant, Anglo-Saxon male and all his values reigned supreme, she [Eliza Lentini] was trebly invisible” (p. 195). Yet the women are usually the ones who hold families together in adverse circumstances. Duder describes the self-reliance and strength of Eliza and her daughters that she discovered from knowing some of them, and hearing stories about them.
The second significant insight has to do with who we are culturally. Although we learn culture from our parents and grandparents, we do not inherit culture in the same sense that we inherit genetic material. At the outset, Duder imagined arriving in Italy and basking in an Italian culture shared with long-lost family members. Indeed, she had learned some Italian culture at home, particularly her grandmother’s love of Italian music and art. But culturally, she was Kiwi New Zealand, which is evident in her descriptions of frustration she experienced in Italy as she came face-to-face with cultural differences in how things are done in everyday life. Time, for example, does not follow the same rhythms in Italy as it does in New Zealand, and her own sense of time was not Italian. Culturally, we are members of the world we live in today. Family history, rather than being a celebration of imagined cultural roots, can be better understood as knowing something of the lives one’s own life rests on.
I thank Duder for an enjoyable and informative read, and my friend in New Zealand for passing the book on to me.