Book summary: In January 1882, Laurel Ulrichís great-grandmother, Rachel Davis Thatcher, died when the roof of the log cabin to which she and her husband John had recently moved partially collapsed, crushing her under heavy beams. Several versions of her death survived, some passed down to descendants, some written down at the time. The differences among these variants reflect the diverse perspectives and purposes of their sources. They especially tell us much about relationships within the Thatcher family. But further they help us understand the distinctions between memory and history and how each reveals in its own way something about the past. While memory is not history, it is from memory that family histories are constructed, and it has great power in shaping family and group identities.
In Rachel Thatcherís case, the stories of her death alternately reveal, among other things, a sonís sorrow and resentment; the prominence of Rachelís family, especially its men; the wonders of modern 1880s communication contrasted against an anachronistic log-cabin home; a pious uncleís religious authority and consequent need to assure another son of Godís grand plan; the additional need to absolve a husband of responsibility for the state of his familyís housing; the significance of that husbandís shift from city to farm life; and, especially, the dilemmas and struggles brought on Rachelís sister Sarah, also her sister-wife, because of Sarahís unhappy polygamous marriage to Rachelís husband, John B. Thatcher. In her inimitable manner, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich focuses on a set of seemingly routine oral traditions and historical documents and, by recognizing the meaning and significance of their mundane details, weaves a rich, dramatic tale that lets us understand the past in a fresh way.