Olivia Newport Who Do You Think You Are?

My sister's dog in a bed that is distinctly not his. Photo by Larry Mohr.

“Who do you think you are?”

Do you hear the tone in that question? It’s a little scoldy.

Like, “Do you really think you’re someone who deserves that privilege?” Like, “Who are you to think you can step out of your place?” (Or who do you think you are that you can sleep in my bed, you puppy dog, you?)

I don’t watch a lot of television, but one show I enjoy is NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? They put a whole new spin on the question.

Celebrities get a lot of expert help from the likes of ancestry.com to trace their genealogies back five, six, or even ten generations. They’re always aghast at what they find, and I can believe it. How many people know their family lines that far back? Most people are lucky if they remember their grandparents and have heard some family lore about great-grandparents. As people live longer, even five-generation photos are becoming more common, while just a generation or two ago, they were unheard of. We don’t always know the strength—or frailty—of our own family trees.

So who do you think you are? That’s a theme that my Avenue of Dreams series and my Valley of Choice series share. And I suppose that means it’s something that intrigues me as a person and as a writer.

While I was researching for The Pursuit of Lucy Banning and the sequels set in the 1890s, I was digging around in the muck and mire of an extended economic recession, unjust labor practices, political mud-slinging, financially based class distinctions with rich people getting richer on the backs of working stiffs, debates over women’s rights, at-risk children falling through the cracks, out-of-reach education, stock market crises, rapid life-changing technology advances—does any of that sound familiar?

Society changes. Culture shifts. Families reshape. But some fundamental struggles never seem to change. And all through the process we have to figure out who we want to be as individuals and communities, and then help each other get there.

That’s what my books are about—characters who wrestle with who they want to be in relation to the world swirling around them. Along the way they find the love and meaning that enrich all our lives.

• Who helps you be the best you can be?