A story of growing up in a mixed-race family in 1970s New Jersey. Could a picturesque white house with a picket fence save the world? What if it was filled with children drawn together from around the globe? And what if, within the yard, the lines of kin and skin, of family and race, were deliberately knotted and twisted? In 1970, a wild-eyed dreamer, Bob Guterl, believed it could.
Matthew Pratt Guterl’s ambitious, intellectually searching memoir... has the potential to achieve this expansive effect but falls short as it keeps its subjects at arm’s length ... Guterl’s subjects are frequently obscured by circumvention ... Guterl skirts concrete arguments for or against transracial adoption. He doesn’t argue that adoption agencies should or should not prioritize racial similarity in placement practices, nor explain how these practices might have changed in the 50 years since his parents made their choices. He doesn’t include his adopted siblings’ perspectives on the matter at all ... Admirably, Guterl doesn’t spare himself when describing the inescapability of racial harm ... Guterl’s strengths as a writer show in his unflinching analysis of this and other racially complicated scenes, but what’s often lost is how these scenes connect to and define the family story ... Guterl chooses elision over concrete depiction in the memoir’s hardest moments. This impulse likely stems from compassion and a desire to protect his family’s privacy. And sure, a memoir need not be a storage container for every family skeleton, but relevant narration — heartbreaking or otherwise — is, I’d argue, a big chunk of a writer’s basic job description.
Guterl’s search, perhaps undertaken on behalf of his siblings, does not shy away from challenging their parents’ mission. That entails examining not just the failure of their experiment, but also the limits of their father’s ability to grasp why and how the 'endeavor begins to unravel' ... The historian of the family, Guterl wants to convey his perspective on the tangled truth of what has happened to him and the people he loves ... Though at times I felt held at a bit of a distance—Guterl is a careful writer and has clearly tried to respect his relatives’ wishes regarding their privacy—he rarely tries to protect or exonerate himself ... For all that Guterl has learned by the time his sister confronts him, and for all that he has come to question about how they were raised, he, too, still needs to be disabused of some assumptions.
Guterl focuses much of the story on himself and his closest siblings... and on the realities of growing up in a big family. But he is clear-eyed about his privilege, even within his family, and about his parents who, with the best of intentions, have the whiff of white saviors. Readers may wish to hear more from his siblings’ voices, but this doesn’t detract from this unique perspective on race.