The shadow of your family tree

I’m not a genealogy buff, but I’m regularly surrounded by people who are interested in family trees, and John Crowley’s Little, Big has me thinking a little more about the stories buried in these things. The story starts with a family tree, and the first thing I noticed is that there are a certain number of spoilers embedded in such a tree. For example, the chart shows that someone named August Drinkwater had a child (but was not married to) someone named Amy Meadows, who later marries someone named Chris Woods. So when we reach a point in the story where we meet August, and he is pining over Amy, some of the suspense over where the relationship is going is gone. We know some things about where the relationship is going right off the bat.

If Little, Big had a narrower focus–if the beginnings of this relationship were the whole book–this might be a problem, but Crowley’s ambitions are larger. He is willing to put some spoilers in the family tree because he understands that while he may give some little things away, he’s setting some some bigger questions. The larger sweep is what he’s aiming for, similar to another book that starts with a family tree, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Solitude needs to family tree just for clarity–without it, keeping all the Aurelianos and José Arcadios would be a daunting task (it’s still not easy). But both Crowley and Garcia Marquez bury questions in their family trees’ oddities–Garcia Marquez, for example, with the line indicating the birth of “17 Aurelianos,” Crowley with the line dropping from August that simply says “Other Children.” And moving beyond these obvious oddities, each line is a story, which both authors are quite conscious of. Each line of a family tree contains meetings, births, partings, and deaths, and traveling from one to another is where both books find their stories. The small details the family trees give away is nothing compared to the big question they ask–how did these families get from here to there, and why?

There’s something else going on here, too. In the TV on the Radio song that gave this post its title, the shadows of one particular family tree hide a gallows, and blood is fed to the tree’s evil roots to keep it young (it’s a cool song!). Sometimes a family tree is a roadmap to tragedy. T.H. White hammers this point home at the end of the second part of The Once and Future King. He very much wants readers to study, if not memorize, Mordred’s family tree, because he believes (with good reason) that it is the key to Arthur’s undoing. However noble his intentions, however good many of his actions were, Arthur’s doom is sealed in that bit of genealogy. That’s perhaps a bit fatalistic for my taste, but White works hard to back up that contention in the rest of the book.

The family tree Garcia Marquez presents has its share of shadows too, but its nature is different. Rather than leading up to one final tragedy, the family tree maps out the landscape of solitude, showing all the many ways there are in this life to be alone. It leads to the only place it can possibly lead–as Garcia Marquez says, “races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.” As is the case with White’s family tree, Garcia Marquez’s carries a strong strain of destiny, but rather than having sin lead to tragedy, it’s like begetting like, solitude leading to solitude leading to solitude.

Where does Little, Big‘s family tree lead to? I don’t know–I’m nowhere near done with it yet. But I see the hints of one big story and the many little ones it outlines, and I’m anxious to see how Crowley colors in the borders.

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