Tolstoy wrote: “All happy families are alike. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Of all the countless words stemming from Tolstoy's prolific pen, this statement is one of his more famous and oft' quoted lines.
When I think of this depiction of family life, my mind casts about. Did I come from a happy family? Am I creating a happy family? What constitutes an unhappy family?
When I read Tolstoy's statement the first time, I was still in high school. His words had the ring of truth. I knew some unhappy families, and the sad moniker was more evident in childhood. To this day, I can think of certain houses, walking in, catching my breath and feeling scared. Like a cloak protecting children, the fear was a filmy layer I sensed at once. When I think back to these unlucky homes, I recall the thick silence and an awareness of my beating heart. I felt pity for whomever it was who brought me into this house. There would be an air of tyranny. I would know of an issue too. We had somewhat of an understanding of every marriage in our old neighborhood. I do not know how. I recall that I listened to adult conversations by the hour; I found them fascinating. If I sat very still and remained quiet, I could hear more delicious details. When I heard the phrase, “little pitchers have big ears,” I would sit back on my heels, disappointed to know that I was about to be sent out of the room.
I became aware of family traits at an early age because we were always hearing about whom we took after. I knew the good and the bad from both sides of the family, and where those traits became evident. Life seemed to be a game of genetic ninepins. Good traits were pointed out, and failings all had something to do with ancestry. There was disagreement among the ranks. Nevertheless, with all of our faults combined, we were unabashedly happy. Imperfect, zany, optimistic, risk takers, competitive, generous and compulsive; we seemed to have a never-ending penchant for drama.
Writing a family saga involves events in the character's lives over time and generations. We get involved in political families, famous families, royal families, and powerful families, loving all that is familiar and unique. We root for them, get exasperated by them and generally want to see the family triumph over all adversity. When setting out to write such a tale, a lofty ambition indeed, we must first decide if they are a patriarchal, or a matriarchal clan. Did they slip along the way, and climb back up again, or did they devolve into a great mess? Do hurts and stings have a lasting effect? Are they a family who can bounce back from adversity? Can they go from an unhappy family to a happy one? Is there an offshoot? Is there a villain, or a hero? Are they the stuff of legend? Will the third generation squander the efforts of the first? Will predators destroy them? There is no end to the possibilities of a great family saga.
Pictured above is the desk where Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone with the Wind.
In no particular order, I have supplied a list of family sagas I have read and loved:
Fall on Your Knees, by Ann-Marie MacDonald,
Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott,
Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell,
One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez,
East of Eden, by John Steinbeck,
House of Spirits, by Isabel Allende,
The Godfather, by Mario Puzo,
Roots: The Saga of an American Family, by Alex Haley,