Fathers in Novels

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.

1931 top novel picks are not for those who skim

My choices for the most enduring novels of 1931 are an odd lot. Though very different,  each is difficult reading for readers accustomed to stereotypical characters and happy endings.

Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth surely belongs on the list both for its vivid prose and its glimpse into nearly extinct Chinese culture. However, I don’t think the novel is appealing to most people in the world today. In a metropolitan world that values  property, The Good Earth celebrates an agrarian society that values land.

Maid in Waiting by John Galsworthy has a similar set of vitues and deficits. I’m afraid the self-controlled, cultured, public-sprited citizens who keep populate this and others of Galsworthy’s 9-volume Forsyte saga will appear as preposterous to today’s readers as farmer Wung Lu. However, Galsworthy has amazing facility to reveal character in undramatic contexts, and he’s a wonderful writer.

The Road Back by Erich Maria Remarque is a glimpse of Germany after World War I. As soldiers return home, they find their country and themselves changed forever. The novel provides  insight into the origins of World War II. It also is a powerful glimpse into the effects of post traumatic stress.

Equally compelling reading is Fannie Hurst’s Back Street. This novel about  a kept woman might better be called a novel of an ill-kept woman. Even the son is appalled by the conditions in which his father’s mistress was forced to live while her financier-philanthropist lover lived in luxury.

Linda Gorton Aragoni