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Orphanhood, kinship, and cultural memory in contemporary American novels

Making Home explores the orphan child as a trope in contemporary US fiction, arguing that in times of perceived national crisis concerns about American identity, family, and literary history are articulated around this literary figure. The book focuses on orphan figures in a broad, multi-ethnic range of contemporary fiction by Barbara Kingsolver, Linda Hogan, Leslie Marmon Silko, Marilynne Robinson, Michael Cunningham, Jonathan Safran Foer, John Irving, Kaye Gibbons, Octavia Butler, Jewelle Gomez, and Toni Morrison. It also investigates genres as carriers of cultural memory, looking particularly at the captivity narrative, historical fiction, speculative fiction, the sentimental novel, and the bildungsroman. From a decisively literary perspective, Making Home engages socio-political concerns such as mixed-race families, child welfare, multiculturalism, and racial and national identity, as well as shifting definitions of familial, national, and literary home. By analyzing how contemporary novels both incorporate and resist gendered and raced literary conventions, how they elaborate on symbolic and factual meanings of orphanhood, and how they explore kinship beyond the nuclear and/or adoptive family, this book offers something distinctly new in American literary studies. It is a crucial study for students and scholars interested in the links between literature and identity, questions of inclusion and exclusion in national ideology, and definitions of family and childhood.

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Maria Holmgren Troy, Elizabeth Kella, and Helena Wahlström
in Making home
Texts, intertexts, and contexts
Maria Holmgren Troy, Elizabeth Kella, and Helena Wahlström

This chapter situates the study in both literary and socio-historical contexts, focusing on earlier discussions of the American orphan figure in literary and social history and elaborating especially on literature as cultural memory. The chapter traces the central position of orphans in nineteenth-century American literary history as it has been constructed in the twentieth century; orphans have played major roles in a dominant white male tradition in criticism, but also in gendered and ethnic challenges to that tradition. Previous critical discussions of orphans typically focus on children’s literature, or on nineteenth-century literature, but nevertheless offer useful insights into the historically shifting roles and cultural work of orphan characters, linked to social and political developments in the US. The chapter also addresses ideas of the orphan, childhood, and family, and how these ideas operate in social and academic debates over multiculturalism, the US canon, and national belonging.

in Making home
Native American orphans and sovereignty
Maria Holmgren Troy, Elizabeth Kella, and Helena Wahlström

While literary representations of indigenous peoples by non-Native writers now appear infrequently outside of popular genres, contemporary Native representations of Native orphan children have become common, which this study views as a literary trend growing out of widespread experiences of child removal and foster care, as well as of alternative child-rearing and kinship practices. In this chapter, key questions are posed to four works in which Native American orphan figures appear: Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees (1988) and Pigs in Heaven (1993), Linda Hogan’s Solar Storms (1995), and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Gardens in the Dunes (1999). What “signifying capabilities” do Native American orphans have? What specific challenges to American and/or Native identity do authors respond to through their use of orphan figures? In what types of narrative or ideological processes are Native American orphans involved? The analysis suggests that authors use the figure of the orphan to interrogate the possibilities and limitations of American and Native nationhood, particularly in regard to their ability to accommodate, assimilate, or otherwise mediate difference. In the process, writers of fiction establish theoretical alliances or antipathies with multiculturalism as a model for American or Native social and political life.

in Making home
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Euro-American orphans, gender, genre, and cultural memory
Maria Holmgren Troy, Elizabeth Kella, and Helena Wahlström

This chapter examines contemporary novels featuring white orphans that engage intertextually with the Euro-American canon, claiming a type of literary kinship, at the same time as they draw upon a feminist counter-tradition as a form of recovered cultural memory: Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping (1981), Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days (2005), and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005). The chapter scrutinizes the particular processes that white orphan characters are involved in – processes of inclusion, exclusion, recentering, and critique – and argues that contemporary orphan stories renegotiate conventional gender divides in the American quest or picaresque, the bildungsroman, and domestic or sentimental fiction, for in these novels the trajectories of boy and girl orphans entail a repositioning in terms of gender and genre. In claiming literary kinship with earlier genres, they draw on cultural memory but also challenge central American myths.

in Making home
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Euro-American orphans, the bildungsroman, and kinship building
Maria Holmgren Troy, Elizabeth Kella, and Helena Wahlström

This chapter focuses on John Irving’s The Cider House Rules (1985), and Kaye Gibbons’s Ellen Foster (1987) and The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster (2006), novels that remember earlier American and English novels to revise the conventions of the bildungsroman and challenge its conventional gender boundaries. In the process, the novels describe the kinship building of the protagonists, who develop complex understandings of kinship ties and a consciously affirmative stance on the value of “alternative family.” Because they are orphans, Irving’s and Gibbons’s protagonists are outsiders, but because they are white they may still lay claim to the dominant formulation of American identity; and the challenge they launch against the nuclear family ideal may be effectual precisely because they occupy a position of racial privilege.

in Making home
Orphans learn and remember in African American novels
Maria Holmgren Troy, Elizabeth Kella, and Helena Wahlström

This chapter offers analyses of African American orphans in Octavia Butler’s Fledgling (2005), Jewelle Gomez’s The Gilda Stories (1991), and Toni Morrison’s A Mercy (2008). These writers employ genres such as the vampire novel and the historical novel of slavery to move beyond established paradigms of the modern black family. A transnational tendency affords a different inflection on questions concerning home, family, and nation; these novels also imagine feminist, queer, and multicultural forms of kinship that move beyond the nuclear family. However, these forms of kinship are not presented in exclusively utopian terms, for the novels explore the limitations as well as the possibilities of non-normative kinship and transracial, and even trans-species, adoption.

in Making home
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Maria Holmgren Troy, Elizabeth Kella, and Helena Wahlström

The coda of this study summarizes findings about the literary orphan figure in contemporary American novels. Through brief analyses of Tim Gautreaux’s The Missing (2009), Chang-Rae Lee’s The Surrendered (2010), Sapphire’s The Kid (2011), Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child (2012), and Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son (2012), it demonstrates the continued relevance of this figure for literary imaginings of home.

in Making home