Young adult fiction seems to fall into a few distinct groups. There are straight-up romance novels, with or without a fantasy element, the ever-popular dystopian series and the odd zombie novel. Trends develop – vampires, faeries or teen spies – but some things don’t seem to change. There are always a lot of novels which highlight issues which are important to young people (or indeed, just to people) – issues of sexual identity, mental health, gender politics, race, and bullying, among others – in fact there are so many I’d be fairly certain this is proof that the older generation’s insistence that young people have no interest in politics is wrong: they just don’t often agree with the politics of their elders… Sometimes these are issues which are, arguably, of more interest to the young than the more mature reader: one such would be that of the fate of children in the care system.
In Far From the Tree Robin Benway tells the story of three such children. First we meet Grace who, like so many young girls before her, becomes pregnant and decides that the best thing for her daughter is to give her up for adoption. Her parents, her loving, adoptive parents, support her in her decision even though it then leads her to finding about more about her biological family. Her birth parents remain elusive but she does meet up with two siblings she never knew she had – Maya, her younger sister, who is living with adoptive parents and a little sister, loved but sticking out like a sore thumb as the only brunette in a family of flaming redheads, and Joaquin, their older brother who has moved from foster home to foster home (although he is now settled with a couple who seem to want him as a part of their family). All three have their own secrets and fears which they reveal as they get to know each other and learn about the years since they were given up by their mother. The last secret to be told is Grace’s – how can she tell Maya and Joaquin, who are still angry with their mother for abandoning them, that she has given up her own baby?
I have no personal experience of the care system (in the UK let alone the US system this book is set in) so I can’t comment on its accuracy but some of the events ring true to how I think such things work. Girls are more likely to be adopted than boys, babies more likely than older children and white children more likely than those who are Hispanic/mixed race: all factors which work against Joaquin. That said, I really liked Joaquin as a character. He seems to be sensitive and caring – he becomes very protective of his sisters very quickly – as well as, sometimes, angry and unhappy. He pushes away those who try to care for him and the more we learn of his past the more I wanted to fight on his behalf. Although the book starts with Grace’s experiences it was her brother I cared about most. I wanted his ending to be the happiest of all – goodness knows, he’d earned it – even if I know that, statistically, this is unlikely.
In the end this is a book about family. Grace, Maya and Joaquin are bound by blood and by genetics. The families who take them in, or who have rejected them are also important to the story and we learn that there can even be love behind the decision to give up a child to others.