Mothers in Novels: Five Memorable Ones

Reading novels reminds us that there are all kinds of mothers, some of whom would never inspire a Hallmark card.

In honor of Mother’s Day, here are capsule summaries of five novels whose main character is a mother. Some of the novels will make you wish its leading lady had been your mother. Others will make you immensely grateful for the mother you had.

Three Loves, A. J. Cronin’s 1932 bestseller, is a novel about a woman who views herself as selflessly devoted to her family. The family views her as selfishly controlling. What happens when the devoted wife and mother realizes her devotion is rejected makes for riveting reading.

The Iron Woman by Margaret Deland  is novel for puzzle lovers. The novel follows four children as they attempt to carry out, against the wishes of their two mothers, marital plans made one summer afternoon under an apple tree. One of the mothers is the formidable owner of Maitlin Iron Works. The other is an equally formidable genteel widow. As to which is the better mother, there’s no contest. Readers must decide which of the two is the stronger.

The Family by Nina Fedorova (1940) is the story of a Russian emigrant family living in China in 1937. When the Japanese invade China, the mother has to decides to send the children off to what she can only hope will be a better life. Then she picks up the pieces of her life, and builds a new family in Tientsin.

Years of Grace by Margaret Ayers Barnes was not only a bestseller two years in a row, but garnered the 1931 Pulitzer Prize for literature. Its leading lady, Jane Ward, leads an unremarkable life. Always comfortably well-off, she makes a happy marriage and has three children. In the 1920s when her children are grown and have children of their own, Jane reflects on her life and wonders if she made the right choices.

The Battle of the Villa Fiorita by Rumer Godden takes a ‘sixties look at a mother whose life is not all that different from Jane Ward’s, but who makes different choices.

My top picks of the 1940 bestselling novels

Of the  bestsellers from 1940, the only ones familiar to today’s readers are by iconic American writers Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck. Hemingway’s novel is the better book; Steinbeck’s the more memorable:  it was on the bestseller list two years running.

Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls is a war story told from the perspective of weary guerrilla fighters. Although the novel is set in Spain in the 1930s, the story could just as well be about an insurgency anywhere in the world in 2010.

Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is a propaganda piece about America’s working poor displaced by the dust bowls and economic upheaval of the Great Depression. The novel elicits an orgy of compassion that ends with emotionally exhausted readers feeling they’ve been manipulated.

Several other novels on the 1940 bestseller list deserve a resurrection. Oliver Wiswell by Kenneth Roberts, The Family by Nina Fedorova,  Night in Bombay by Louis Bromfield, and Kitty Foyle by Christopher Morley (another novel on the bestseller list two years in a row) are readable second-rate novels relevant to contemporary readers.

If you find any of these in a yard sale or Salvation Army store, pick it up. It will be well worth the investment.

The Family: People without Passports

A Russian family, “ex-big, ex-great, ex-prosperous” has dwindled to five members living in Tientsin, China in 1937. They operate a boarding house whose rooms they rent to a rag-tag assortment of people of various nationalities whose lives are defined in terms of what they no longer have.

The family is loving, interested in life, and hopeful for the future.

Before long, the Japanese invade China and the family’s already precarious financial situation becomes dire.

Mother has to let the young people leave: Lida to become an American war bride, Dima to be adopted by a lonely English woman, Peter to be smuggled back into Russia. As the biological family scatters, Mother loves the boarders into becoming a family.

Nina Fedorova’s fluid prose will be welcomed by anyone put off by the dense, turgid paragraphs that mark most Russian works. She writes with wit, and  sensitivity about the struggles of people whose lives consist mainly of looking for work and doing without. By then end of The Family, however, her praise of strong women slips into sentimentality.

Despite that sentimentality, The Family remains an eye-opening glimpse of the lives of people without passports in a hostile world.

The Family
by Nina Fedorova
Little, Brown, 1940
346 pages
My grade: B+

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni