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Early death. Bereavement. Single parenthood. The Family History juxtaposes the story of a recently bereaved twenty-first century Canadian family on the tale of its Victorian London counterpart. Working her way through grief after her husband's tragic death, Holly traces her family history through census records on the Internet and finds her imagination captured by glimpses into the lives of her ancestors in the crowded Thames-side streets and alleys.
In the mid-nineteenth century Johnnie and Emma survive the sudden death of their father just as Holly's own children do, and their mother, Rebecca, must bring them up alone. Holly's heart goes out to Rebecca as she imagines her struggling to find the money to apprentice Emma to a dressmaker and sending Johnnie to be bound to his uncle, a lighterman on the Thames.
Johnnie, on early marriage and fatherhood, abandons his apprenticeship along with his father's and grandfather's wishes and goes for a soldier after all. His young wife Phoebe and their baby son are left to struggle on. Emma, like her mother before her and both Holly and her mother after her, confronts early widowhood. She tells Phoebe, "Death is, after all, just another part of life, isn't it? The people we love die, and we have to go on".

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