A Freak in the Family Tree is a compelling YA fantasy novel about friendship, history, and breaking down prejudices.
The novel follows 12-year-old Kit, who feels like an outcast in her small town because of her junk-collector father and his eccentric family, even as she rides horses and attends private school due to her wealthy stepfather. Kit soon meets Whitney, a smart, confident, biracial girl, and her grandmother, and after an initial misunderstanding, the girls become best friends.
When Kit discovers a tree filled with the spirits of her ancestors, she and Whitney find a parallel universe within the tree. They embark on a quest through time to the Old West to help Kit’s Lakota ancestor bury sacred objects she had promised her tribe to protect long ago. Through this adventure, Kit learns about privilege, history, and how to deal with the bullies in her present.
With its elements of fantasy and history, this novel is ambitious, yet it flows well. Kit, as narrator, comes across as a believable 21st century American girl: intelligent and almost cockily self-assured in some areas, blindingly ignorant in others. Watching her and Whitney’s relationship develop is one of the book’s most fulfilling parts. Whitney’s knowledge of history helps them navigate their adventure in the past. She also calls Kit on her unintentional racism and classism and urges her to see the shallowness of her so-called friends in the school riding club.
The “rules” involving Kit’s family tree and the time travel are a little confusing at times, and it’s never fully clear how Whitney can be a part of it if she’s not related to Kit’s family. Also, sometimes Whitney’s speech can seem more like an adult’s, especially her explanation about why people originally wanted to ban Huckleberry Finn.
But these issues are easy to overlook, due to the compelling plot, filled with action and thoughtful reflections. Readers will also relate to the story’s appealing characters.