Patricia Polacco's In Our Mothers' House
Children's book review by Suzanne Edison.
A book about transracial adoption by a lesbian couple
As an adoptive parent, I am familiar with the adage, Love makes a family. This idea is played out in an increasing variety of books for children about adoption. International adoption is very common these days and in many of these stories we see transracial families (Over the Moon, Happy Adoption Day, The White Swan Express).
Most often the people in these books are heterosexual couples and sometimes single moms (The Red Blanket). Occasionally we might see a gay male couple (Daddy, Papa and Me)—though it might likely be a gay penguin couple instead, (And Tango Makes Three). And sometimes we read about or see two women characters who are adoptive mothers.
In Our Mothers' House stands out as the rare book that not only looks at transracial adoption by a lesbian couple, it actually deals with a variety of community responses to them, as seen through the eyes of one of the adopted children.
In this story, an African born girl is the narrator. Her mothers seemingly went through a lot of physical challenges to find her. “They told me how they had walked across dry hot deserts, sailed through turbulent seas, flew over tall mountains and trekked through fierce storms just to bring me home.” One wonders if this is literal as well as metaphoric…I assume it is both.
She goes on to tell us about the next two adopted children, an Asian born boy and a red-headed girl (whom we assume to be from the USA, as this is an American family.)
In true Patricia Polacco style, we learn about the richness of each mother’s background and their jobs. We see in her drawings and through her words, the realities of everyday life from kids getting sick, to drawing on walls, dancing, and dressing up for Halloween.
It is while trick-or-treating we get our first hint that not everyone in the neighborhood thinks a lesbian couple with kids is the best way to make a family.
“One year we went as wild animals. Hardly any of our neighbors recognized us. That is, except for Mrs. Lockner. She knew us alright. She glared at us when she opened the door. She glared at our mothers, too.”
What makes this a powerful moment is that the kids recognize something is amiss but their mothers choose not to address it then. We go on to witness other scenes of joy, raising puppies, cooking and celebrating holidays with other family members.
One great scene shows many neighbors pitching in to help build, and enjoy, a tree house in their back yard. (Don’t I wish this had been MY neighborhood growing up!) However, when the Lockner kids were invited to sleep in the tree house with the others, their parents wouldn’t let them stay overnight. Again the narrating child remarks, “They just plain didn’t like us, I guessed.” And then we move on.
In Our Mothers' House
It is remarkable that the author allows this tension to go on without resolution through a couple of interactions, to really drive home the point of both subtle and glaring prejudice. Eventually there is a reckoning. A rather nasty one. Yet the author chooses not to “have it out” but allows the homophobic character even more leeway as she shouts, “I don’t appreciate what you two are!” This comes during a block party that the adopted family conceived and organized. The children are frightened and the mothers respond with comments like “she’s full of fear, sweetie” and “there seems to be no love in her heart.” At this point I’m thinking, this is enough. Would a real family have let it go on for so long without some sort of direct response?
There isn’t an overt resolution in this story. Instead, In Our Mothers' House continues to focus on all the “regular” things mothers do with their children. They grow up feeling loved, and making their own family bonds even as the mothers age and the next generation is born.
There is a lot to be said for “normalizing” the family experiences that many of us share, whether raised by single, heterosexual or gay parents. But there is also something to be said for finding ways to respond to others who are disrespectful and nasty out of fear and prejudice. I wish Ms. Polacco had found those words, for this story.
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