How We Survive Here, by Claire Gebben: Families Across Time

How We Survive Here ($21.95, 334 pages, 6×9 Trade Paperback, ISBN: 978-1-60381-701-1), is a memoir by Claire Gebben with letter translations by Angela Weber. In 2008, Claire Gebben’s relative from Freinsheim, Germany, came to the Pacific Northwest, bringing with her fifteen letters, dated 1841 to 1900. As the two begin translating the Old German Script, they become captivated by the stories. Via 19th-century correspondence and 21st-century emails and interactions, this family memoir weaves together a story of how we strive and survive.

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As far back as Claire Gebben can remember, her grandmother wrote letters to the “relatives in Freinsheim,” relatives living in a rural wine-making town in Germany. After her grandmother dies, Claire keeps the tradition alive, writing letters and emails.

In 2008, relative Angela Webber travels from Germany to visit Claire in the Pacific Northwest and brings with her a surprise—fifteen letters, dated 1841 to 1900—discovered in an attic in Freinsheim. The first is written by Angela’s and Claire’s 4x-great grandfather, an early German immigrant to Cleveland, Ohio.

As the two begin translating the Old German Script, they become captivated by the stories: a wagon business burning to the ground, an amputation that requires a wooden leg, an uncle who heads off for the California Gold Rush. That fall, Claire enters a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program, and for her thesis decides to write about the people of the letters. An ambitious undertaking, given her scant knowledge of German language and history. Meanwhile, Claire’s immediate family has dwindled to just a few, and she must help her elderly aunt who can no longer live on her own. Then, at the start of the thesis project, Claire’s father dies, and with him, the oral history of his German ancestors. Long distance from Germany, though, Angela agrees to help, and Claire perseveres, embarking on research that includes an intensive blacksmithing class and trips to Ohio and Germany. In the process, Claire’s dwindling family expands in unexpected, meaningful ways.

Via 19th century correspondence, 21st century emails, and present-day relationships and experiences, How We Survive Here: Families Across Time weaves together how we strive and survive, amid connections past and present and the broader sweep of history as it impacts our families across time.

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