When you imagine a quintessential American family, what comes to mind? Perhaps a white, middle class family of four, living in a slate-gray home with red shutters over the windows. The dad works in a charming office decorated with potted snake plants and the mom packs sandwiches and handfuls of goldfish crackers in her children’s tupperware lunchboxes. They own a dog, a chipper golden retriever who dives into the flame-colored leaves in the backyard every October.
While these families certainly exist, they are oversaturated in the media to the point where those with dissimilar families can feel isolated. Our idea of the American family is defined by media; by the children’s picture books published in the 1940’s we have deemed classics, by the glossy images stamped across the covers of shopping catalogs, by the thirty-minute sitcoms we watch every Tuesday night over a bag of cheddar popcorn. This is why it’s important to represent familial diversity in television, art, and literature, something Robin Benway does so exquisitely in her young adult novel, Far from the Tree.
Grace, Maya, and Joaquin are all half siblings, sharing a birth mother. As their mother immediately gave each of them up for adoption, they grew up in noticeably different circumstances: Grace, an only child adopted by two loving parents, Maya, adopted by a wealthy couple just before they found out they were pregnant with their own daughter, and Joaquin, the oldest sibling who bounced from foster home to foster home, unable to find his footing. At age 16, Grace is finally able to reach out to Maya, followed by Joaquin. The three siblings begin hanging out (awkwardly at first, as their first interactions are as teenagers) but they grow to realize the irreplaceable security they can provide for one another. Their journey as a family is interwoven with their journeys as individuals; Grace struggles with a teen pregnancy, Maya worries about how her parents’ impending separation will impact her and her sister, and Joaquin deals with unresolved trauma from his childhood years as a kid in the foster care system. As their lives are tossed into the air by the volatility of life, they find that they are the only ones that can keep each other afloat.
Far from the Tree is not just an enjoyable read, but it’s also an informative one. In her acknowledgments, Benway mentions the people who “let [her] talk to them about [her] characters and their stories” and thanks them for “graciously [bringing her] into their lives and [discussing] their families, jobs, and [experiences] with her.” She conducted extensive research and personal interviews in order to create a realistic depiction of three teenagers’ experiences with the adoption and foster care systems. Benway’s dedication to telling the stories of an atypical, yet incomparably unified family makes Far from the Tree a poignant, heartwarming read.
On a more technical level, Benway’s skills in dialogue and figurative language allow the novel to flow quite naturally. She strikes a balance that many young adult writers are unable to locate; she understands that teenagers inherently behave differently from adults, but she doesn’t write them off as immature and lacking agency in their own lives. It’s possible for teenagers to debate the appropriate french fry condiments one day and return to school for the first time since birthing a baby the next – in fact, this very scenario is ripped straight from the beginning of Far from the Tree! Furthermore, Benway’s command of metaphor causes the emotional moments to strike an untapped chord in the heart. Grace’s hands are scarred when she clings to a tree for support in a violent thunderstorm. Maya covers her ears and hopes her parents’ shouting won’t cause an Alice-in-Wonderland-type explosion. Joaquin bobs far offshore in an ocean’s open waters, unwilling to latch to any buoys that float his way.
Finally, Benway doesn’t shy away from topics that can be difficult to write about, such as race or sexuality. Instead, she approaches them with a nuanced take, looking at how people’s identities can affect their roles in the adoption and foster care systems. Joaquin, the only one of the three to be half-Mexican, mentions how “white baby girls [are] first-ranked on most people’s list of Children We Would Like to Have One Day”. Benway should be commended for acknowledging how children of color are frequently viewed as less desirable than white children. She also touches upon the issue of sexuality with Maya, who is openly gay. Maya’s parents are quite supportive, but upon meeting Joaquin she learns about the children who were kicked out of their foster homes after coming out, and it causes her to think frankly about what her sexuality means to her. Some teen novels avoid social justice altogether – they skip over the realities of race and gender and sexual orientation in an attempt to streamline their narrative. Benway, on the other hand, seamlessly works these topics into the novel by creating three characters with distinct, complex identities.
A National Book Award Winner, Pen American Award Winner, and New York Times Bestseller, Far from the Tree is both heart-shattering and heartwarming. The question “What does it mean to be a family?” is stamped across the cover, the answer to which is dispersed across all 374 pages of Benway’s magnificent novel.