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When the Bough Breaks

by Lev Grossman

Although he is not himself a little person, Andrew Solomon attended a Little People of America convention in Danvers, Mass., in 2003. On his first day there, he met a teenage girl who was staring around at her fellow attendees, evidently distressed. It was her first time there too. “This is what I look like,” she said. She was either laughing or crying or both. “These people look like me!”

This story comes early on in Solomon’s monumental, almost absurdly ambitious Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity. It illustrates a concept that Solomon calls horizontal identity. As he explains in his precise, occasionally clinical prose, “Often someone has an inherent or acquired trait that is foreign to his or her parents and must therefore acquire identity from a peer group.” Horizontal identity was hitting that girl at the Little People convention like a ton of bricks. She looked more like a bunch of people she’d never met than she did her average-size parents.

Solomon… talks to an incredible number of people, and the sheer weight and intimacy of the anecdotes in Far from the Tree put it in a league with great oral histories like Studs Terkel’s Working… “Sometimes,” the mother of one schizophrenic woman tells Solomon, “life isn’t about choices.” And when choice fails us, love is the only thing left.

(To read the full review, please visit the Time website.)