The Book of Sarahs

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Catherine E. McKinley grew up in an adoptive home where, despite thoughtful and caring parents, her biracial heritage left her feeling angry and like an outsider in a WASP family and community. Her strong need to connect with her African American background led her through adolescence and college to restrict friendships to African Americans and to fantasize about a Black mother.

In her twenties, believing that finding her birth family held the key to her true identity, she embarked on a search for her birth parents that led in many directions as she encountered the obstacles of closed adoption records and misleading trails. What she found was a white, Jewish birth mother with a history of mental illness; a part-African American, part-Native American birth father; numerous half-siblings and a sister who had also been adopted. Each new revelation brought complications that caused painful adjustments. Although she resists a happy ending, she comes to feel more comfortable with herself and the complexities of her extended family.

This memoir has many strengths. McKinley’s story raises many social issues about family, race, religion, gender, mental health, and adoption. Her description of the pain and anger that she feels at her sense of loss and estrangement helps the reader to understand the human cost to a child of adult decisions, whether misguided or well-intentioned. Although she remains at the center of her narrative, she brings a remarkable ability to depict the plight and motives of others with sympathy and respect. The Book of Sarahs: A Family in Parts is a sensitive portrayal of the resilience of the human spirit in the face of adversity.