Five Nonfiction Books for the New American Family

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Gretchen Lida

Staff Writer

Gretchen Lida is an essayist and an equestrian. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Brevity, The Rumpus, The Washington Independent Review of Books, and many others. She teaches composition in Illinois, lives in Wisconsin, sometimes lives on Nantucket Island and is still a Colorado Native.

The shape of the American family has taken a drastic shift in this last generation. The reality is that this “family” is made up of a multiverse of shape, size, color, creed, gender that is now being recognized and represented. Single women are on the rise, the birth rate is lower, multi-parent families are more common, and polyamory and the chosen family are starting to find a foothold of legitimacy in mainstream society.

Yet the more we learn, the more we are learning about how family impacts our relationships with race, gender, money, place, and almost every other aspect of our lives. Here are five nonfiction books that help us look at these ideas up close.

New Family Values by Andrew Solomon

This book is an Audible original that is well worth your time. It chronicles the complexities of the modern American in a way that is honest and empathetic. It has chapters on chosen family, adopted children, surrogacy,  polyamory, those who wish to stay single, and many other facets of American family life that defy the “Leave it to Beaver” constraints we are often presented with.

Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Immigrant by Jose Antonio Vargas book coverDear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen by Jose Antonio Vargas

To understand the American family, we must understand American immigration.  Dear America is a journalistic memoir by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Jose Antonio Vargas. While it isn’t directly about family, Vargas’s story would be incomplete without understanding how his status as an undocumented American has profoundly influenced his relationship with his mother, his grandparents and many of the members of his chosen family who have come along the way.

Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth by Sarah Smarsh

Heartland was nominated for the National Book Award this past year. It is an unflinching look at the ways that the United States often gaslights poor Americans by refusing to talk about the truths about class and money that have plagued the United States from its infancy. The thing that struck me the most about the book was the writing about her family and the place she calls home. Class and money dictate how we raise our children, who we marry, and even who we divorce. I related so deeply when she wrote about finding sanctuary on her Grandfather’s farm, and couldn’t help but want to comfort a young Smarsh who believed that hard work would make her mother lover her.

heavy by kiese laymonHeavy: an American Memoir by Kiese Laymon

This stunning memoir by writer and teacher Kiese Laymon is written as an open letter to his mother. It is unflinchingly staring down the author’s life looking at body image, diet, childhood, teaching, race, addiction, and more. Much of the book is filtered through the lens of family. Who Laymon became has so much to do with his mother and his grandmother. Yes, it is complicated, but it is also deeply true.

It Didn’t Start with You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who we are and How to End the Cycle by Mark Wolynn

The more we understand the human brain, the more we understand how family shapes us. Mark Wolynn’s book It Didn’t Start with You takes a hard look at the instances where we inherit trauma from members of our family. Sometimes this trauma is clear; for example, one of his patients had insomnia and constant fear of being too cold, and then he found out that an uncle he never knew died of hypothermia as a young man. Other times it takes on different shapes. This trauma can be expressed in our genes, or it can be passed through family lore. No matter how it shows up it can impact who we are and who we will become and it is much more common than we think.