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Fathers who try to give their children all the advantages are two-a-penny in fiction. What makes them interesting is that they don’t all use the same strategies. Nor do they all work from the same base of moral and emotional strength.

In Howard Spring’s My Son, My Son, a twentieth-century father spoils his son to destruction just as King David did his beloved son Absolom centuries before.  A subplot shows the opposite approach of training a son to be tough may not lead to a happy outcome either.

Lest you think spoiling sons is just a western habit, Pearl S. Buck  in The Good Earth shows a Chinese peasant spoiling his sons. Just in case you miss the destructive nature of that indulgence, she makes it clear in Sons.

Penny Baxter in The Yearling yearns to give his  son every advantage, but his family is too poor.  When Penny gives in to Jody’s plea for a pet, the growing fawn’s destructiveness requires both father and son to toughen up.

Johnny Nolan isn’t tough enough to take care of his kids’ physical needs, but he cares for them emotionally in Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.  Johnny’s arranging years in advance for his daughter to have flowers for her high school graduation is one of the sweetest tokens of a father’s love in literature.

Some of the most interesting father figures in vintage novels are men who acted as father to children who were not their own.  The man who brings up the orphaned Barbara Worth, who affords him respect but no love in Harold Bell Wright’s novel The Winning of Barbara Worth, is an extraordinary man.  So is the crotchety grandfather in  The Portygee. Saddled with care of a grandson, the old man has to learn to turn their mutual dismay into a relationship of mutual respect and caring. (Grandma helps a lot.)

East of Eden by John Steinbeck is a contemporary retelling of the Cain and Abel story.  A father raising two boys whose mother has deserted them, seems to have a knack for saying and doing the wrong thing, setting one son against the other. The novel weighs the roles played by genetics, nurture, and personal choice in determining what a child will become.

Enjoy and evaluate these fathers in vintage novels.

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During the early days of World War I, bookseller John Pybus exhorted men to enlist. His own sons, Conrad and Probyn, preferred to serve in protected occupations that lined their pockets.

Their father disowned them.

Years later, they learn he is the “boots” at a country hotel.

Probyn’s son Lance learns of his grandfather’s existence and looks him up. They bond immediately. Lance calls his grandfather “the Venerable.”

When Lance wants to become a writer instead of going into his father’s business, Old Pybus supports him. Through his grandfather, Lance meets a woman with whom he falls in love. And the Venerable is also responsible for Lance developing an adult relationship with his parents.

Much of the plot of Old Pybus is predictable. However, the novel’s interest isn’t the plot but the characters. At first glance, Lance looks like a standard-issue hero, but on longer acquaintance he exhibits all sorts of quirks, becomes pig-headed and sometimes acts downright stupid. He is, in short, human — a very fine thing for a book character to be.

If Old Pybus had been written by someone other than Warwick Deeping, the story could have dissolved into sentimental claptrap. By making readers his confidants and reminding them real life isn’t this tidy, Deeping lets readers revel in the romance without the tiniest feeling of guilt.

Old Pybus
By Warwick Deeping
Alfred A. Knopf, 1928
350 pages
1928 bestseller #7
My Grade: B +
© 2009 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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