Excerpted from Family Tree by Barbara Delinsky. Copyright © 2007 by Barbara Delinsky. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
BARBARA DELINSKY is the author of more than seventeen bestselling novels with over twenty million copies in print. She has been published in twenty-five languages worldwide. Barbara lives with her family in New England.
Barbara Delinsky is represented by Random House Speakers Bureau (http://www.rhspeakers.com).
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Q&A WITH BARBARA DELINSKY, AUTHOR OF FAMILY TREE:
FAMILY TREE deals with issues close to the heart such as love and relationships. However, it also speaks to larger social issues of identity, race, and community. What served as inspiration for your story? Were you influenced by larger, social issues?
Interestingly, there was no single event or newspaper piece or personal experience that inspired FAMILY TREE. The book was inspired by the times we live in, with those larger social issue creeping into my consciousness and crying for expression. Interestingly too, I don’t see the book as one about race. Basic identity, yes. Community, definitely. But the book is also about hypocrisy — about those people who say one thing and do another, who wear one face in public and another in private, who want us to do as they say, not do as they do. We all know people like this, whether personally or in the news. Writing about them was a temptation I couldn’t resist.
The concept of family is central to FAMILY TREE. The book begins with Dana and Hugh Clarke’s growing family on the eve of their daughter Lizzie’s birth. In addition, FAMILY TREE is full of atypical families: Dana and her grandmother Ellie Jo; Dana and her long-lost father, Jack Kettyle; Hugh and his prominent ancestry who can be traced back to the Mayflower; Crystal’s paternity case against he senator; and the knitting club, a group of woman who care for each other as if they were a family. What do you see as the basic values that define a family?
I would define a family as a unit that is linked by either genetics or love. Indeed, one of my goals in writing FAMILY TREE was to create discussion of what, indeed, constitutes a family. I personally consider a close and caring group of friends to be family, hence the knitting group. This is a family we choose. Those others, the ones that come with the territory of birth, marriage, and DNA, are more visceral. Here, the stakes are higher with regard to both joy and pain.
Dana and Hugh’s young family is almost torn apart because of Lizzie’s unexpected African-American physical traits. Hugh, feeling pressure from his Caucasian New England family, begins to doubt Dana’s fidelity and ultimately damages his relationship with his African-American friend, David. Is Hugh’s mistrust from outside pressures? Or do his reactions reveal his real attitudes about race?
That is a pivotal question in this book. Hugh is a lawyer who has, time and again, gone out on a limb defending minority clients. Yet suddenly, seeing that his own child has minority roots, he feels a qualm. Do I think he is racist? Absolutely not. I think he is stunned. He is frightened. He is savvy enough to know exactly what his bi-racial child will face in life. And, yes, he bows to outside pressures at the start. But he loves this baby from the get-go. She is the vehicle that enables him to honestly and realistically examine his attitudes about race.
The notion of secrets resonates with every character and drives the plot of FAMILY TREE. Questions of paternity and infidelity branch across generations, leaving change in their wake. For instance, why does Ellie Jo keep her husband’s secret?
Ellie Jo is of a generation that found shame in certain things, her husband’s secret being one of them. Times have changed; in the modern day, Earl’s secret would be easily handled, with little shame involved. But Ellie Jo is not of the modern day. Goodness, my mother died of breast cancer when I was a child, yet I didn’t learn it until I was nearly an adult. Why? My father couldn’t say the word ‘breast,’ much less ‘cancer.,’ and he was far from unique. His and Ellie Jo’s may have been The Greatest Generation, but it was also one of the most silent ones.
Both Eaton and Hugh Clarke struggle with the question of identity once they are forced to reexamine their past. How much do we shape our own identities apart from our families? Are Eaton and Hugh more alike than they think? What characteristics, good or bad, do they share?
Here, too, the modern day differs from the past. We are a mobile society now. Families are dispersed geographically in ways they did not used to be. Many families see their younger generation doing things occupationally that are new and different. New locations, new occupations, new social liaisons — all do shape identities to be different from those in the family nest. That said, though, some traits do carry over from one generation to the next. Physical traits do. Hugh and Eaton have the same stature and the same coloring. Emotionally, though, the two are definitely alike. Both are dogged in their chosen fields. Both are hard-headed. Both are also, at the core, compassionate people who do have the ability to change and to grow.
Driven by Hugh to discover her ancestry, Dana delves into her ambiguous family past in order to learn about the father she never knew. Although he wants to develop a relationship once they’ve reconnected, why does Dana have a hard time opening up to her estranged father? As she learns about his life and his relationship with her mother, does her attitude towards her mother change? How does this alter her concept of family?
Dana has grown up without a father and, perhaps by way of rationalization, prides herself in neither needing nor wanting one. She goes looking for the man solely for the sake of her daughter, but a part of her remains resentful he never cared enough to look for her. Why does she have trouble opening up to him? Fear of being hurt, perhaps? Fear of being seen as the illegitimate one, the intruder in a tight-knit family? One of the problems is that he is a really, really nice man. Liking him, for Dana, though, means believing his story, which in turn means finding fault with her mother. In time, she is able to set fault aside and be realistic about both of her parents. She sees that people are human and do make mistakes. This helps her understand her husband.
Many of your books use New England as a setting. Massachusetts is the setting for FAMILY TREE. Did the location impact the story itself?
As a lifelong New Englander, I know this region more than any other and, therefore, feel comfortable setting my books here. Massachusetts is the home of Plymouth Rock, the site of the Mayflower’s first landing. In that Hugh Clarke’s forebears were on that boat, the state is an appropriate setting for FAMILY TREE. Beyond that, though, the issues in FAMILY TREE are not region-specific. They are broad issues that impact readers wherever they live.
From the Hardcover edition.
1. What were your initial theories about Lizzie’s ancestors? Did you ever doubt Dana’s fidelity?
2. How would you have reacted if you had experienced Dana and Hugh’s situation? How would your circle of friends and coworkers have reacted?
3. Discuss the parallel stories woven throughout the novel, including Dana’s painful reunion with her father, Ellie Jo’s secret regarding her husband’s other marriage, and Crystal’s paternity case against the senator. What are the common threads within these family secrets? What ultimately brings healing to some of the parties involved?
4. Crystal’s dilemma raises timely questions about the obligations of men who father children out of wedlock. Are Senator Hutchinson’s obligations to Jay the same as Jack Kettyle’s obligations to Dana? Should men always be financially obligated to their children, regardless of the circumstances? If so, what should those financial obligations be?
5. Why is it so difficult for Dana to feel anything but anger toward her father? In your opinion, did he do anything wrong? How does she cope with the shifting image of her mother?
6. What is the root of Hugh’s reaction in the novel’s initial chapters? Is he a racist? Is he torn between loyalties? Does he trust his wife?
7. Is your own ancestry homogenous? If not, what interesting or ironic histories are present in your ancestry? Do you believe it’s important to maintain homogeneity in a family tree? If you were to adopt a child, what would be your main criterion in selecting him or her?
8. Discuss the many differences between Dana’s and Hugh’s families. What drew Dana and Hugh to each other? To what extent is financial power a factor in shaping their attitudes toward the world? What common ground existed despite their tremendous differences in background?
9. What accounts for the universal fascination with genealogy? Should a person be lauded for the accomplishments of an ancestor, or snubbed for the misdeeds of one? Is genealogy a predictor?
10. In chapter 23, Eaton voices his frustration by shouting questions at the portraits of his parents. How might they have responded to his questions had they lived to see the arrival of Lizzie?
11. What should Dana and Hugh learn from the experience of Ali’s parents? What would the ideal school for Lizzie be like? What does Ali’s story indicate about integration?
12. Recent developments in DNA mapping have made it possible to discover not only lineage (as was the case for the biracial descendents of Thomas Jefferson) but also many general geographic details about one’s ancestry. If you were to undergo such testing, what revelations would please you? What revelations would disappoint you?
13. Discuss Eaton’s “reunion” with Saundra Belisle. Were their youths marked by any similarities, despite the fact that they lived in distinctly different worlds?
14. What role does location play in Family Tree? Would the story have unfolded differently within the aristocracy of the South, or in a West Coast city?
15. What does Corinne’s story reveal about the false selves we sometimes construct? Who are the most authentic people you know? Who in your life would stand by you after a revelation like Corinne’s?
16. Does Eaton’s history demonstrate the ways in which racism has waned in recent generations, or the ways in which very little has changed?
17. Consider whether the issues at the center of Family Tree manifest themselves in your life. Is your neighborhood racially integrated? How many people of color hold executive positions at the top companies in your community? Is there a gulf between the ideal and the reality of a color-blind society in 21st–century America?