Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Book review: Family Tree

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What might a baby, born with African American features to a White couple, reveal about their own family? Barbara Delinsky’s novel Family Tree asks this complicated question. The question of the origins of baby’s appearance took the White couple, Hugh and Dana Clarke, in quite different directions.

To Dana, whose knowledge of her own family tree was filled with holes and silences, the source of the baby’s African American ancestry was unimportant. This was her first baby, a daughter who needed love rather than analysis. To Hugh, on the other hand, the question was very important. Had Dana had an affair with an African American neighbor? Did she have mixed ancestry she hadn’t faced up to yet? To Hugh’s parents, the question loomed even more important. Hugh’s father, a prominent historian and writer who took great pride in his ability to trace his ancestry to the founding of the U.S. (in other words, he used ancestry as a way of proving his pedigree as an member of the White elite), a grandchild with African American ancestry was a travesty.

Barbara Delinsky’s romance novels normally take on complex family relationships, although on her website she tells us that the issues in this one were new to her, and she had to push herself to think them through.

A huge issue in this novel is “passing.” In the U.S., the “one drop” rule was solidified following the Civil War, in the context of Jim Crow laws that barred African Americans from participation in numerous social institutions. As Jim Crow solidified White privilege and Black subordination, numerous mixed-race people crossed the color line, passing as White. How many passed over time? We will probably never know, as those who did so had to hide their own family relationships as thoroughly as possible.

The novel prompts readers to wonder why many White people see it as important to document an elite White lineage. What might happen to one’s sense of self if one discovers that his or her lineage is not “pure”? Family Tree also probes a complicated interplay between trust and love, on the one hand, and unexplained physical “evidence.” Should Hugh insist on DNA testing to prove that he was the one who fathered the baby? Should family members use DNA testing to identify who contributed the African American ancestry?

While I felt that the pieces of the story came together a little too readily at the end (readers will have to read the novel to find out how it ends), I found Family Tree to be a page-turner that can prompt probing discussions.

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