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.


My 5 top picks of 1939’s top 10 novels

Of the top ten bestselling novels for 1939, five are still super reading today.

Two of the five are inside looks at the lives of the working poor.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings The Yearling tops my list of the 1939 bestsellers with the most value for today’s readers. Although the main character is a young boy, The Yearling is not just a kid’s book. If you’ve ever had to tell your son or daughter, “we can’t afford that,” you will see the Baxter’s situation through adult eyes.

John Steinbeck’s classic novel The Grapes of Wrath has to be on my list. Like The Yearling, it looks at the lives of the working poor. Unlike the Baxters to stay on land nobody wants, the Joads are kicked off their farm and become migrant workers. Steinbeck uses his novel as a soapbox,

Two other books from 1939 that have held up well are thrillers: Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Ethel Vance’s EscapeRebecca totters on the brink of being a chick-lit novel. There’s nothing feminine about Escape.  Mark Ritter’s attempt to smuggle his mother out of a prison camp is in the best tradition of war novels.

My final top pic, Kitty Foyle by Christopher Morley, is a romance as seen through the eyes of a woman who cannot afford to endulge in romance.  Kitty wisecracks her way through the loss of both parents, an unwanted pregnancy, the depression. She’s one tough cookie with a tender heart.

Whatever your mood, one of these novels should provide suitable entertainment.