Telling our family stories: The Boy and the Three Criminals

There was once a wealthy man who lived in a village near Vienna. He owned many businesses, including a butcher shop and a tavern. One day, while in his tavern, he told one of his regular patrons that he had to travel to the market in Vienna to buy beef for his butcher shop. Little did he know, three unsavory characters were listening in on his conversation, and overheard of his plan. They knew that the wealthy man’s pockets would be weighed heavy with gold and formulated a plot to rob him. The next morning, they waited along the forest road and ambushed their unsuspecting victim. Instead of handing over his coin, the wealthy man attempted to fight off the three scoundrels. He was murdered and the three thieves escaped into the woods.

Not long afterwards, a local villager found the wealthy man’s horse by the side of the road and soon discovered his body. The authorities were alerted, a posse formed, and the three men were soon captured. Punishment was swift; the three fiends were sentenced to hang in the town square.

Before their execution, each man was given a final wish. The first criminal asked for a tankard of beer so he could blow the foam off and drink it. He was granted his wish. The second criminal wanted to spit in his mother’s face because she had not “raised him right.” His wish could not be granted, because his mother was not present; for all anyone knew, she was no longer alive. The third criminal stared into the crowd of onlookers and asked that the son of the man he had murdered to come onto the scaffolding, so that he could lift his chains and know their weight.

The boy obliged and, timorously approaching the murderer, grasped the heavy chains in his hand and knew their heaviness.

The men were executed and the boy inherited his father’s wealth and businesses. But he mismanaged his affairs and eventually fell into severe debt, and lost everything.

* * *

Well, that is a true story—as far as I know anyway. It was told by my grandmother. The boy in the story was the husband of her own grandmother. I don’t have a picture of the boy (there weren’t many cameras back then!), but I do have a picture of my grandmother as a child in Austria:


I also have this photo of her mother, my great-grandmother, who told the story to her:


Well, this is a famous story in my family, and retelling it is how I began Class 1 of the new workshop series I’m teaching this term. The program is called CWC Family Stories for the Creative Writing for Children society.

I spent the last few months developing this program. It’s designed for teenaged students, and is meant to help them explore their personal, familial, and cultural identities through a creative lens. My feeling is that when we explore what has come before us, we can gain insight about ourselves . . . which is very important when you are writer!

And, of course, you can also discover a treasure trove of new ideas. And a writer is perpetually on the hunt for new ideas!

Personally, I find the facts of the family story told above to be suspicious. It reads like a fairy tale—there are three criminals, and an implied lesson, as if the boy in the story took such heed of the chains that he took no further risks in his life, and thereby fumbled away his inherited wealth. Still, it doesn’t really matter if it’s fact—there’s a certain truth to it. (Though, it’s at this point that I must say that my grandmother—the conduit of this story—was illiterate. As such, she trained herself to survive by memorizing everything. She never told a different version of this story—or any story, for that matter. She never elaborated or modified. So, if this story was ever made more fanciful, it was by someone who came before her).

In any case, I’m looking forward to the workshop series. We’ll be tackling family stories from a variety of angles, discussing food, family rituals and traditions, family homes, even family pets.

We’ll also be reading a series of books over the course of the next twelve weeks. It’s pretty easy to find books that relate to family life; pretty much all of them do! But I developed a list that connects to the specific topic of each week. For the record, here is my list . . .

* * *

Paperboy, by Vince Vawter

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, by Jacqueline Kelly

The Flask, By Nicky Singer

Crispin, Cross of Lead, by Avi

Alexandria of Africa, by Eric Walters

The Gospel Truth, by Caroline Pignat


The Wee Free Men, by Terry Pratchett

Stones on a Grave, by Kathy Kacer

Half Brother, by Kenneth Oppel

Running Wild, by Michael Morpurgo

Dear George Clooney, Please Marry My Mom, by Susin Nielsen

The Green Man, by Michael Bedard

* * *

I hope to chronicle much of the program on this blog over the coming weeks. Stay tuned!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s