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Dayton Literary Peace Prize Judge on Far from the Tree

by Ken Bode
2013 Dayton Literary Peace Prize finalist judge

The apple never falls far from the tree, commonly means that children exhibit the same or similar traits as their parents. In Far From the Tree, Andrew Solomon turns this adage upside down and examines what happens when the bundle delivered by the stork defies that convention. Sometimes, Solomon writes, the apple falls at least a couple of orchards away.

With ten years of research, thousands of interviews and hundreds of examples, he examines what happens when parental expectations fall off the cliff, when their children arrive with horizontal identities—deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia—conditions not found on the family tree.

Solomon exhaustively examines ten conditions that can make parenthood a walk in the dark, abnormal chromosomes and other quirks of biology that produce a child who must pursue life on an altered playing field. It is a massive accumulation of evidence, a breathtakingly humane study of a part of the human condition that lies outside common experience.

Parenting is no sport for perfectionists, Solomon writes, and his focus is equally on the life of the child and the challenges to the parents. “Why do parents raise children unlike the ones they thought they could love?” he asks. And sometimes when the struggle seems endless and hopeless, the parents he interviews admit, “Had we known what we know now, we wouldn’t have done it.”

Speaking for myself, there was not a single chapter—from deafness to children conceived in rape to transgender to prodigies — where I did not discover my learning curve was very steep. In every instance, Solomon takes his readers deep inside a series of illustrative cases. The confidences yielded by his informants are tribute to Andrew Solomon’s humanity and his interviewing skills.

So talented is the author at telling these stories that Far From the Tree reads like a good novel. For example, he visits the Little People of America conference, an event for people with dwarfism that features athletic competitions, a talent and fashion show, all tailored to little bodies, along with much anticipated opportunities for dating. Dwarfs mainly find affinity through their horizontal trait, and Solomon’s descriptions are so beautifully textured that the reader feels he is along on the trip.

For parents of children like the ones we meet under Andrew Solomon’s tutelage, life is endlessly unknowable. Yet, as he says right at the outset, “There is no such thing as reproduction. When two people decide to have a baby, they engage in an act of production.” When the apple doesn’t fall close to the tree, parenthood is abruptly catapulted into a permanent relationship with a stranger. When the transmission of identity from one generation to the next does not come out as expected, parents must love the children for themselves and not the best of ourselves in them.

That can be a great deal more difficult, and as Far From the Tree reveals, some parents succeed and some do not.