The Accidental Archivist is a love story, a detective story, a mystery and an exploration of how scientific advances can intrude into an ordinary life with unimaginable consequences.
It’s also a detailed family story rooted in the Midwest, mostly in Wisconsin, except for one significant period that takes place in Evanston. Readers who enjoy Evanston history, Midwestern history, the history of the Catholic Church in the United States and genealogical explorations will be fascinated.
Angela Bier is the author, genealogist, archivist and a blogger, primarily focusing on her family’s history. She is a descendent of “Valentine Bier, an ethnic German who emigrated to southern Wisconsin with his wife and seven children in 1882,” she writes in the first chapter.
In 2016, Bier received an email from Kathleen LeFranc that included the phrase, “I am part of your family.” As she read the letter, Bier learned that LeFranc was adopted as an infant and was doing research on her birth family to find out about her origins. Another ‘new’ cousin had recommended Bier to LeFranc because of their shared interest in genealogy.
Using commercial databases and DNA testing sites such as Ancestry.com and 23andme, LeFranc had learned the name of her birth mother. She would later learn that her birth mother was unmarried, pregnant and 19 years old when she was relocated from Wisconsin to Evanston, to live with a Catholic family until she gave birth. LeFranc’s private adoption took place two weeks after she was born, by which time her birth mother had moved back to Wisconsin.
LeFranc also had a lead about her birth father, who was reportedly a priest. But there were seven priests across the various branches of the Bier family tree during the decades in question, and any one of them could have been her father. Could Bier help LeFranc untangle this genealogical puzzle?
Well, that certainly got Bier’s attention. She was on the case and documented nearly every interaction over the next three years until the conclusion became indisputable. These notes became the book, which includes emails, photos, ephemera and genealogical charts.
As the story unfolds, LeFranc meets many new family members including a full sibling, Henry Fetta. Both of their lives have been enriched immeasurably by finding out their origin stories, and they are grateful for Bier’s generous assistance. This is the happy ending as well as a happy beginning.
But finding a new welcoming family is the best possible outcome for a story that is rooted in tragedy: the limited choices of an undereducated, naive young woman and her forbidden love affair with an older priest–who was also a second cousin. Both birth parents suffered due to their choices.
Bier has written a fascinating study, rich in painstaking detail about family interactions, insights into local customs and the history of this part of the Midwest. It contrasts old customs with new ones, the changing role of religion, and the limited opportunities available to women.
The book is available in print and electronically, and published by Moonshine Cove Publishing.