Julia Keller CULTURAL CRITIC
November 22, 2009
Over the river and through the woods and across cyberspace they came, the many e-mails responding to my request for suggestions about great family novels. With Thanksgiving just around the corner, I thought it was an excellent time to reflect upon which books are best at exploring families -- good families, bad families, families that inspire and encourage or those that thwart and nitpick, families that run the gamut from the Marches (made famous in "Little Women") to the Mansons (ditto in "Helter Skelter").
Many people suggested "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1960) by Harper Lee. Other family-themed classics that remain bright in readers' minds include "To the Lighthouse" (1927) by Virginia Woolf: "At this time of year, when families are gathering for Thanksgiving dinners, you can't find a better family dinner party scene than the one that lasted 20 entire pages," writes Margie White of Glen Ellyn.
Christine Uliassi of Park Ridge makes the case that even long-beloved family novels such as the series "The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew" (1881-1916) by Margaret Sidney can resonate anew. "I read this sweet story more than 50 years ago, and the sense of love and commitment that the Pepper family shared has stayed with me. ... The two oldest children, Polly and Ben, decide to give Christmas to their younger siblings by making presents for them -- not a bad idea in difficult times, past or present."
For Rita Krider of Streamwood, you can't beat "Little Women" (1868) by Louisa May Alcott. "My daughters and I love this book. ... As the March sisters grow and give each other advice, this book shows the unbreakable bond of women in the family. So put on the pj's and slippers, and enjoy a warm and fuzzy read!"
Marion Horwath of Berwyn recommends "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" (1943) by Betty Smith, while Frank Barr of Glen Ellyn says the Conrad Richter trilogy "The Trees" (1940), "The Fields" (1946) and "The Town" (1950) is not to be missed. Jan Panek of Westchester believes that "The Camerons" (1972) by Robert Crichton is well worth the search to find it.
Daniel J. Treier of Wheaton offered a suggestion of more recent vintage: "The Brothers K" (1992) by David James Duncan, "an updated 'Brothers Karamazov' of sorts." Kimberly McGuire of River Forest said that for a powerful family saga, try "Beyond the Bedroom Wall: A Family Album" (1975) by Larry Woiwode: "This book weaves the stories of various family members and multiple generations of the Midwestern Neumiller family. ... Read just the first chapter titled 'Burial,' and you will contemplate the deep ties that connect families across miles and experience. There are many quiet moments here, but the big questions of life and death and faith are here too, in very subdued tones."
Anne Tyler's "A Patchwork Planet" (1998) is the choice of Zahava S. Davidson of Skokie, while Joyce Carol Oates' "We Were the Mulvaneys" (1996) is the family novel that most moved Audrey Beauvais of Arlington Heights. Three more family novels that have entranced readers include "What We Keep" (1998) by Elizabeth Berg, "Tales of the City" (1978) by Armistead Maupin and "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society" (2008) by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, recommended respectively by Beverly Waxler of Morton Grove, Brian Treglown of Chicago and Cindy Antene of Brookfield.
Thomas Mahoney of Buffalo Grove and Donna Ruggles of Flossmoor eschewed e-mail and penned impassioned notes. "This is a slam dunk," Mahoney wrote of James Joyce's "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" (1916). For Ruggles, the choice is the Truman Capote yarn "A Christmas Memory" (1956), a "wonderful story and memory that always triggers one of my own."
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