Talk of this book had been floating around for awhile, but I finally bought it after an IEP meeting for a 17 year old student where the mother broke down in tears, saying how she still hasn’t come to terms with her child’s learning disability. I always knew it was hard for families in elementary schools, but this was the first time I saw the pain in the high school level, and it affected me deeply. Soon after, I ordered “Far From the Tree” so I could have a better understanding of what (some) families are going through.
The reason this book is so powerful is because it is a 960 page tomb where each chapter is devoted to a specific special need or other circumstance that has led to the child being markedly different than their parents; thus the title.
Andrew Solomon taps into the lives of families with children that range from having physical and developmental disabilities all the way to children who are seen as prodigies.
In this framework Solomon identifies one differing identity, or circumstance, per chapter and weaves together insightful prose with firsthand stories of people he has interviewed over the years. While reading chapter after chapter it is continuously striking to see how many years he has invested in this project. These chapters don’t touch the surface of the topic, but build a house next to the water’s edge and break through that surface like it was a pastime…metaphorically speaking.
In a book of this size there are several takeaways to be had. The chance to further understand the identities that are created by the differences seen in these families is key. A resonating insight Solomon makes is when he says, “Fixing is the illness model; acceptance is the identity model…” While people may struggle for some time with themselves and within their family, the stories in this book show how many individuals and families are able to find an identity through what started off as a difficulty.
Additionally, in reading this book one comes away with an abundance of new ideas. From hearing astonishing rates of Autism and shocking anecdotes from 70 years ago, to common (but not often talked about) medical ailments for people with Down’s Syndrome and dwarfs [sic], to the observation that hearing impaired persons have a lower intelligence without early interventions, the importance of this book is consistently evident.
Throughout all of the personal stories, and poignant ideas, Solomon consistently drops deep statements like, “American law provides guarantees of education that are not matched by guarantees of medical care.” These kinds of commentaries after a pathos-inducing story are what inspires people to get involved and support a cause…or at the least changes their Piagetian ‘schema’.
Yet the biggest takeaway provided leads back to the reason I picked up this book in the first place. Solomon addresses a perennial dilemma some parents face when he says, “ Parents of children (with Autism) such as Cece fear that their love is useless to their children, and they fear that their deficits of love are devastating to their children, and it’s hard for them to say which fear is worst.” This is something I haven’t considered, although I have worked with many children with Autism and their families. This is why I picked up this book. To understand what happens behind the scenes. And Solomon’s insightful analyses bring up issues like this that really have no clear answer, but raise thought and debate.
These are considerations that also connect to the other side of the spectrum, so to speak, with gifted children where in the chapter on “Prodigies” he starts one section with this difficult thought: “Pushing talented children can backfire; not pushing them can backfire, too.” Having the opportunity to dissect these thoughts makes the reader understand the difficulties that parents with all types of children can face.
“Far From the Tree” is a page turner. You may tell yourself that you are going to only read one section, but find yourself finishing the chapter. The stories and insights are compelling like the conversations of the coffee shop regular waxing philosophical. And to add the shift one makes while reading this book makes it a must read for not just every special educator, but all people that work with children and families.
A version of this article was featured in The International Educator newspaper found HERE (DP….add the link)
If you wanna check out some other books I have found powerful, check out my “RESOURCES” page on my teacher website…