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Tree of Strangers

A compelling memoir of adoption, loss and discovery


“At Bethany maternity home, they take the babies right away. Before the single mothers lay eyes on them. Before they understand how love is made flesh. Before they can mount a defense. Or scream down the ward. Although I’m told they often did both as they tried to find their missing babies.” — Barbara Sumner

Like many adopted people, New Zealand filmmaker Barbara Sumner yearned to find her biological mother. New Zealand’s closed adoption laws prevented this from happening. When they finally found each other, their longed-for reunion ended in tragedy.

Tree of Strangers traces Sumner’s turbulent formative years with her adopting family. It traverses the country from the West Coast of the South Island to Ponsonby in Auckland as it examines New Zealand’s social and moral landscape and the legacy of stranger adoption.

Sumner is an outspoken critic of New Zealand’s adoption laws. Her memoir explores the personal and social consequences of severing all connection with history, culture, family and authentic identity. She argues her experience is shared by many who have had their whakapapa grafted onto a tree of strangers — for their lifetimes and those of their descendants.

Tree of Strangers is much more than activist writing. It is a remarkable, haunting, beautifully crafted book — eloquent, moving and tender. It is memoir at its finest.

Barbara Sumner is an award-winning documentary producer turned writer. Her documentary This Way of Life was shortlisted for an Academy Award, and she has won multiple awards for her films. She runs the film production company Cloud South Pictures with her husband Tom Burstyn. She is currently enrolled at the IIML at Victoria University, Wellington. She lives in Napier. 

Written by

Sarah Thornton

14 Sep 2020