Family Photographs: Relationships Among the Generations

I n our society, as in past societies, the drama of family life frequently centers on the paradox that the family serves both as a source of individual identity and values and as a background from which members struggle to differentiate themselves. The writers in this series explore how family history, traditions, and customs are transmitted (and sometimes not transmitted) from parents to children, bringing both continuity and change. They also help us understand the role ethnic heritage plays in shaping relationships among the generations.

"Past lives live in us, through us. Each of us harbors the spirits of people who walked the earth before we did, and those spirits depend on us for continuing existence, just as we depend on their presence to live our lives to the fullest."
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John Edgar Wideman-----

Jane Smiley's novellas Ordinary Love and Good Will (1989), set in the rural Middle West, explore the complexities of contemporary family life through the eyes of two parents whose efforts to make "good" choices for themselves and their families have had unpredictable results. At a family reunion, the mother in Ordinary Love recalls for her children the long-ago affair that ended her relationship with their father and inevitably changed all of their lives. In Good Will, a father's attempt to protect his family from the modern world has surprising consequences for his wife and son.

Bone, by Fae Myenne Ng (1993), set in San Francisco's Chinatown, portrays an immigrant family whose members straddle the border between the parents' Chinese culture and the values of the contemporary world in which the three Chinese-American daughters live. At the center of the novel is a tragedy that the family seems unable either to live with or to escape. The story is told from the perspective of Leila, the oldest daughter, and focuses on her conflicting impulses to respect and to separate herself from family traditions and responsibilities, impulses that are intensified by her need to care for her mother and her sometimes estranged stepfather.

Betsey Brown (Ntozake Shange, 1985) is set in the black community of St. Louis in 1959, the year that school integration occurred. Through the experiences and perceptions of thirteen-year-old Betsey, Shange draws a complex portrait of an extended black family at a pivotal point in history. Poised between childhood and the adult world, Betsey looks to the future with anticipation, but also with confusion as she weighs the advice and example of the various adults around her--a father who celebrates the family's heritage, a mother who tries to protect Betsey from parts of that heritage, and a rich supporting cast of grandmothers, housekeepers, and family friends.

In Bless Me, Ultima (Rudolfo Anaya, 1972), Antonio, a young Chicano boy, tells of growing up in the cross-currents of two families and two cultures in the American Southwest. His community has been profoundly Catholic for generations, but commingling with its liturgical cycle is the natural cycle of life, represented by the curandera Ultima. Ultima lives in Antonio's home and becomes a grandmother figure to him as he navigates the seemingly conflicting traditions that are his heritage. With the curandera's help, Antonio transforms the elements of his world into a unified vision of self and community.

A Yellow Raft in Blue Water (Michael Dorris, 1984) starts in the present and moves backward in time, telling the story of three generations of Native American women, 15-year-old Rayona, her mother Christine, and the fierce and mysterious Ida, whose secrets, betrayals, and dreams bind the three lives together. The novel centers on Rayona, who, at its outset, works in a state park, on the land her grandmother's generation owned. Like Leila in Bone, Rayona struggles to forge a life-style in which traditional ways and changing values can coexist.

In Montana 1948 (Larry Watson, 1993), a powerful evocation of a small-town summer, the Hayden family confronts a moral dilemma that forces them to reexamine their relationships with each other. Set in the northeastern Montana town of Bentrock, the novel's events are initiated by the revelations of the Hayden's Sioux housekeeper and come to us through the eyes of twelve-year-old David whose understanding of his family and of life is irrevocably altered by them. As the story unravels, David learns that we are sometimes forced to choose between family loyalty and justice.

Suggested Further Readings

For further exploration of literature about the family, look for these titles at your local library or bookseller. WCH cannot provide these titles for addition or substitution in the above series.

Ana Castillo, So Far From God
Kim Chernin, In My Mother's House
Carolyn Chute, The Beans of Egypt, Maine
Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street
Ivan Doig, This House of Sky
Arturo Islas, Migrant Souls
Barbara Kingsolver, Pigs in Heaven
Gloria Naylor, Mama Day
Annie Proulx, The Shipping News
Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping
Carol Shields, The Stone Diaries
Wallace Stegner, The Big Rock Candy Mountain
Any Tan, The Joy Luck Club
Alice Walker, The Color Purple
Eudora Welty, Delta Wedding
John Wideman, Brothers and Keepers
August Wilson, The Piano Lesson



Retired Discussion Series



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