jeannineatkins (jeannineatkins) wrote,

The Power of Absent Fathers

In the first lines of novels that people can quote by heart, right up there with “the best of times, the worst of times” is “’Christmas won’t be Christmas without presents,’ Jo grumbled.” And we know pretty soon that the absence in Little Women is not only about gifts, but the four sisters’ father, perhaps gone for the duration of the Civil War. Along with so many readers, I fell in love with the girls and their darling Marmee, and along with them, I worried: will Father ever come home?

I have to say I felt the longing for this moment more than I enjoyed the celebration, a pause amid more interesting stuff about dances, mean girls and pickled limes, and romances scribbled in a garret. But getting closer to an absent father can pull some characters to the end of a book. Trying to get to her ailing father shapes the plot of the recent and splendid first novel, Savvy, by Ingrid Law. Though Bambi may not be on a quest to find him, I love the moment when the fawn pulls to a fast stop, gazes at a strong stag, and says in his soft voice, “Father?” (I don’t know if this is how the moment is cast in Felix Salten’s book; Disney has a way of wrenching up the mother-father reunions and farewells). Then there are the unknown fathers who shape destinies that we see in a book like T.H. White’s The Sword and the Stone. Wart, known as a fatherless outsider, goes through all sorts of struggles before he can even begin to guess who his true father might have been.

These fathers aren’t sketched in such a way that we’d necessarily recognize them on the street. They’re no, say, Atticus Finch, Archibald Craven, or Mr. Mallard, McCloskey’s duck which my Massachusetts heart is fond of, though I know penguins, as depicted in several picture books, are better dads. But the tug toward an absent father, like an urge toward home, keeps us turning the pages. I’m not sure though that this pull is different from that toward a missing mother. Journeys to reach a mother are powerfully shown in Sharon Creech’s Walk Two Moons, P.D. Eastman’s Are You My Mother?, and Janell Cannon’s Stellaluna. “Where did our mother go?” is a question evaded and examined in various ways as a family of four children look for a haven in Cynthia Voigt’s Homecoming.

Okay, I’m off dads and onto moms, but does it matter? The absence of love and safety, whether depicted as father or mother, can carry us through a book. Is the gender of the hole important? I'd love to hear your thoughts here, or write them up in your own blog. Reflections on fathers in children’s literature can be sent by June 21 to where Susan Taylor Brown susanwrites is collecting them for a carnival, or compilation of entries on the theme.
Tags: authors of classics

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