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“Middling Folk” is a delightful combination of carefully researched facts and evocative storytelling. The book tells of Ms. Matthews’s journey into genealogical research of the Hammill family, begun earlier by her father and an aunt.
Ms. Matthews tells her readers of the journeys of the family itself, beginning with the departure with the lairds Montgomery and Hamilton in 1606 from “the Parish of Beith in North Ayrshire, Scotland, where the River Clyde empties into the North Channel of the Irish Sea,” where the “view is both spectacular and enticing,” but the economy, unfortunately bleak. Some Hammills went to North Antrim and some to Londonderry, also called Derry City, both in Northern Ireland.
Some Hammills were among those who resisted the Irish Catholics in the Siege of Derry in 1689, but their loyalty to Prince William went unrewarded, and their losses, unrepaired. William Hammill died destitute in Newgate Gaol after publishing “A View of the Danger and Folly of being Publick-Spirited and Sincerely Loving One’s Country,” a work that clearly states his disillusionment. His brother Hugh Hammill had predeceased him. Therefore it is John Hammill of Antrim whom Ms. Matthews follows to the “Anglican colony of Maryland,” as “one little pebble in a landslide of men and women who left Ulster for American in the early 18th century.” From there, the Hammills move to Virginia and further west, ultimately ending up in Portland, Ore.
To the concrete facts throughout the book Ms. Matthews adds convincing fictional letters and journal entries that bring life to the historical narrative. They also help to give a sense of the differences between the generations and how the family changes over time in terms of social place, education, ideology.
“Middling Folk” tells a story of a typical family, Ms. Matthews says in her prologue, whose “personal encounters with major historical events show what they entailed for ordinary folk. Wars, economic booms and busts, political upheavals, and social transformations like the abolition of slavery sent family members scrambling to recoup their livelihoods and come abreast of a new present.”
Ms. Matthews’ story of her own “middling-folk” family of the Hammills is in this way very much the story of most everyone’s family, doing what the majority of people do in the courses of their lives.
The generations of Hughs, Williams, Johns, Catherines, Sarahs and Elizabeths could have been made easier to follow with the addition to the book of at least one family tree. These family trees can be found at www.middlingfolk.com, Ms. Matthews’ website, and help tremendously when reading the book.
The maps are very attractive and helpful; ignore the absence of Liverpool in the otherwise beautiful map of the British Isles at the front of the book. There are few photographs, which is a shame, but again, there are more under “Extras” at the website.
Ms. Matthews grew up in Portland, Ore. Her mother was a teacher and her father, a lover of history who read Toynbee and Durand worked for the Federal Housing Administration. Ms. Matthews says when she was young, she “loved the family stories and had a good memory.” This stood her in good stead through her studies at Reed College in Portland and graduate studies in literature at Tufts in Boston.
She came to Evanston in 1966 to teach English literature at Northwestern University. She says she was at first “astounded that you could drive three hours and still not be out of suburban sprawl and the city.” She “took comfort in the trees and lakes” in Evanston. She and her husband, Curt Matthews, whom she met at Northwestern and who was also teaching English literature at the time, changed professional directions.
The couple, she says, bought “a tiny bookstore near the Drake Hotel,” and kept it going as a bookstore for a couple of years, while they began as publishers, and while Ms. Matthews was still teaching. They called the publishing company Chicago Review Press, and the two of them did all the publishing jobs at first – editing, proofreading, the business side of things. Their first products came out in 1973, a translation by Hiroaki Sato of “Spring and Asura: Poems of Kenji Miyazawa,” and a graphic novel by the late Bill Bergeron, “Prairie State Blues.” They sold the bookstore to “a good customer from the neighborhood” when they moved to another space.
Chicago Review Press today is a “mid-sized, thriving publishing group,” says Ms. Matthews. It and its newer affiliate, Independent Publishers Group, or IPG, a distributor of smaller, independent presses including Chicago Review Press, are located now on Franklin Street in Chicago. IPG, Ms. Matthews says, is “uncannily large-sized.” In fact, she concludes with a smile, “35-40 years later, we’re actually making a living!”
The couple raised three children in Evanston – Sarah, Joe and Clark, who attended Dewey, Nichols and ETHS – and have four grandchildren, aged 3 1/2 to 8 years.
Evanston, Ms. Matthews says, is “a wonderful town for writers and artists and anyone who is interested in the creative life. People are interested, there is the library here, and so many businesses and galleries that are willing to have a show. There is a spirit of innovation and creativity in Evanston.