Exploring the meaning of family in fiction

Four books that take on important relationships

Themes of family are explored across all genres.
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As a live-at-home Kingstonian, the end of exam season has always been awkward for me. 
 
I’ve listened to my friends excitedly plan elaborate journeys to return to their loved ones. Meanwhile, my “elaborate journey” involves closing my laptop, descending a set of stairs, and hugging my mom in the kitchen. 
 
Now that I’m half-done my last undergraduate year at Queen’s, I know around this time next year I’ll also be packing my bags, eager to return to my spot at the family dinner table. 
 
I’ve always been curious about what is it that pulls us back to our childhood homes, even after we’ve started living independently on university campus. 
 
The following books have offered me hints. Each includes its own interpretation of the meaning of family. I hope readers will find something on this list that reminds them of home. 
 

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

This three-generation family saga is set in Korea and Japan during the 20th century. 
 
The story starts with Sunja Baek—pregnant at seventeen from a wealthy fish broker—and ends with her grandson coming to terms with his family legacy while trying to find a future in America. 
 
The characters are splendidly fleshed out. As the Baek family struggles with assimilation in Japan, their story becomes one of loyalty and making sacrificesfor their loved ones. 
 
Here, family means support. 
 

Of Bees and Mist by Erick Setiawan 

In Of Bees and Mist, Meridia escapes her cold home by marrying Daniel at 16, then moves in with his family in hopes of finding a brighter future. 
 
But all homes have their own secrets and rules. 
 
As Meridia struggles to make peace with her mother-in-law, she reflects on her feelings for the mother she left behind, wondering how she can make her own family secure. 
 
The subtle presence of magic in the novel gives the prose its spark, weaving wonderfully with the characters’ emotions to show the reader the physical consequences of words and actions. In the world of Of Bees and Mist, magic can both heal and destroy. 
 
Here, family means forgiveness.  
 

A Field Guide to the North American Family by Garth Risk Hallberg 

As a “choose-your-own-adventure” type novella, each page in A Field Guide to the North American Family features descriptive entries of family values like “Optimism”, “Intimacy”, and “Security”, with accompanying illustrations. 
 
The book can be read in order of the alphabetized entries, by picking the next entry based on primary cross-references, or by skipping randomly between the pages. The narrative is different every time you open the book.
 
The result is a series of snapshots about two neighbouring families: the Harrisons and the Hungates. The novella documents the death of one of the families’ paternal figures, and the events that came before and what 
comes afterward. 
 
The moments within the book, though disjointed, paint a picture of sorrow and the struggle to understand life’s cruel turns. The connections between the family members are often unseen, but undeniably present, showing their strength at the toughest times.
 
Here, family means unity.  
 

Good As Gone by Amy Gentry 

In Good as Gone, 13 year-old Julie is kidnapped from her home in the middle of the night. Eight years later, her mother, Anna, struggles with the lost hope of finding her missing child while trying to connect with her husband and youngest daughter. 
 
Everything changes when a young woman appears and claims to be the missing girl. 
 
Anna’s struggle to understand how time spent apart has turned her daughter into a stranger reminded me of how our parents can find us changed when we come back home after being away at school. 
 
Mystery thrillers don’t usually devote much time to dissecting the meaning of family, but I was pleasantly surprised. 
 
Here, family means acceptance. 

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