Family Tree

Barbara Delinsky

Family Tree

Barbara Delinsky

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Family Tree Summary

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Family Tree (2001), a domestic novel by American author Barbara Delinsky, concerns a white couple who unexpectedly gives birth to a mixed-race child. "Delinsky vigorously takes on some thorny racial assumptions here and admirably allows her characters to acknowledge and correct their biases" (Kirkus Reviews).

Hugh and Dana Clarke would appear to be a picture-perfect married couple. Hugh is a handsome, good-natured, and successful Boston attorney who works on behalf of minorities. Hugh can also trace his lineage to the arrival of the Mayflower. Dana, meanwhile, is blonde, beautiful, and expecting a baby daughter any day now. Unlike Hugh, Dana's family history is somewhat shrouded in mystery. Born to an unwed college student, Dana does not know who her father is; her mother never shared this information with her. Dana’s chance of learning her father's identity was severely diminished during her childhood by her mother’s untimely death. Dana was raised by her maternal grandmother with whom she has a loving relationship. Meanwhile, a parallel is drawn between the situation of Dana's parents and the dilemma facing Crystal, who through Hugh's law firm files a paternity suit against Senator Hutchinson for fathering her son, Jay, and refusing to acknowledge him.

When Dana gives birth to her beautiful, healthy baby daughter, Elizabeth or "Lizzie," Hugh and Dana are surprised to see the child has a number of physical traits common to African-Americans. This surprise doesn't hinder the love they feel for Lizzie. Moreover, Hugh trusts Dana without question, at least at first. Before long, however, Hugh's blue-blooded Mayflower-descended father, Eaton, begins to seed doubt in Hugh's head. The author of a number of best-selling books on the Clarke family line, Eaton considers himself a paragon of racial and aristocratic purity. Even before Lizzie is born, he resents Hugh's decision to marry Dana, the child of an unwed mother, thus "polluting" the family line. Although his wife, Dorothy, loves Lizzie as she would any granddaughter, Eaton is incredibly distant to both the child and Dana. Dorothy must go behind Eaton's back just to buy gifts for Lizzie and babysit her. Eaton proceeds to poison Hugh's mind into suspecting Dana of having an affair with the couple's attractive African American neighbor.

Assuming that her father must be black—and eager to confirm this fact in order to assuage Hugh's suspicions—Dana contacts a number of individuals with whom her mother went to college. After a bit of detective work, Dana finds her father. His name is Jack Kettyle and he is definitely white. In fact, he married another woman and had children after siring Dana, and those children almost look as if they could be Dana's twins. Moreover, all of his close relatives are white. After Jack's wife dies, he becomes a priest. While Dana knows she should forgive her father, she cannot let go of the anger she feels toward him over leaving her and her mother.

Having failed to establish her father as a black man, Dana resentfully and reluctantly agrees to a DNA paternity test. The test confirms Hugh is the father. Moreover, the DNA results show Lizzie carries the gene for sickle cell anemia, a trait disproportionately found in black Americans. The biggest surprise comes when the couple learns that it is Hugh, not Dana, who carries the gene. While Dana feels vindicated after weeks of accusations of infidelity, this discovery raises more questions than answers.

Now it is Hugh's turn to play detective; he discovers rumors of infidelity surrounding his maternal grandmother. Before giving birth to Eaton, Hugh's grandmother used to spend summers at a vacation home. Her husband would visit only sporadically. During this time, she developed a relationship with an African American man who lived near the summer house. Even before she gave birth to Eaton, rumors swirled that Hugh’s grandmother did not know if her husband were the father or not. However, when Eaton was born with features resembling that of his own white maternal grandfather, the rumors about his paternity were laid to rest. This discovery naturally causes Eaton to rethink everything he has believed about the purity of his family line, past and present.

Although Barbara Delinsky is best known for writing romance novels, here she crafts a domestic drama that reckons seriously with issues of race and heritage in America.
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