It is clear National Book Award winner Robin Benway enjoys writing about families. I was first introduced to Benway through Emmy and Oliver, her fifth book. The story begins with Oliver, who returns to his hometown after being kidnapped by his father. Far from the Tree, Benway’s sixth book, follows three siblings who discover each other after being put up for adoption and through the foster care system at birth. Although Benway’s writing occasionally feels contrived or superfluous, the message of Far From the Tree is short and sweet: family, although complicated, is essential.
The first character we are introduced to in Far from the Tree is pregnant Grace. We meet Grace as she is giving her baby up for adoption, just as her mother gave her up sixteen years ago. As Grace settles into postpartum depression, the root of her depression is slowly uncovered: she wants to find her birth mother. Grace obsessively worries if her daughter will turn out okay, so she hopes she can reassure her birth mother that she turned fine. I found Grace’s story the most powerful because it has the most circularity. Grace goes through the same struggle her mother did, which makes it all the more resonant.
The second character we meet is the fiery youngest child, Maya. Maya is loud without speaking (although she speaks more than enough) and is constantly immature, similar at times to my younger sister. Maya has family troubles, including an adoptive sister jealous of Maya’s newfound biological family, a semi-absent dad, and an alcoholic mom. However, her story often felt secondary to her siblings’. Perhaps this could have been remedied if Maya’s relationship with her adoptive sister was touched on more.
“The older she got, the more human her parents seemed, and that was one of the scariest things in the world. She missed being little, when they were the all-knowing gods of her world, but at the same time, seeing them as human made it easier to see herself that way, too.”
The third sibling the reader gets to know is Joaquin, the textbook troubled older brother. Joaquin, unlike Grace and Maya, has never been adopted, which he attributes to his being Latino (he has a different father than Grace and Maya). Joaquin struggles with his identity and how it relates to his family; when his foster parents ask to adopt him in the beginning of the book, it only serves to complicate things. He often feels insignificant and unworthy of love, probably because was passed from home to home as a child.
Benway works hard including representation. Maya is openly lesbian and remarks that her family aren’t cavemen, so they accept her without question. On the flip side, Joaquin struggles with being to white for other Latinos and too Latino for white people. This socially conscious subtext is refreshing and self aware.
Grace, Maya, and Joaquin’s stories fit together nicely to create a touching story of family and love. This National Book Award winner makes for a cute read for when you want to know everything will work out just perfectly in the end.