Friday, June 14, 2013


Carrie Got a Bad Rap: Beloved Literary Kids with Deadbeat or Absent Dads

My parents divorced when I was just over a year old, right around the time that I was recovering from a serious bout of meningitis that had irrevocably strained their marriage. There’s either a lot to say about my dad’s non-presence in my life and how it simultaneously fucked me up and made me freakishly resilient, or almost nothing. He wasn’t there. My mom was.

In honor of Father’s Day, here are my favorite literary kids with deadbeat and/or absent dads. All of these books are very, very good, and they all feature kids who grew up with their dad either missing entirely, or entirely missing the mark. If you, like me, have nothing to celebrate on Father’s Day except a lot of teenage angst and a few really shitty romantic choices, read one of these books. You are not alone. You are, in fact, in interesting company. The fatherless, at least according to literature, are a tough, wily bunch.

Carrie, Stephen King

When I was a kid my mom did everything so well I wondered what the point of men—of dads—was at all. In the future, around the time that people replaced food with all-purpose vitamin pills and wore only spandex jumpsuits, women would run earth, and men would exist on a separate planet. Now and then everyone would get together to make some babies, but that would be the end of it. Outside of reproduction, what was a man’s purpose?

Carrie’s universe, not to mention her abusive mother, might be the best counterargument to my childhood vision. The isolated, suffocating femininity of Carrie’s life—the women’s bodies in the steamy shower, Margaret White hissing dirty pillows, the sunbathing teenaged neighbor half-naked on a beach chair, all that condemned, pent-up sexuality without outlet—is the atmosphere that feeds Carrie’s increasing rage. It’s implied that Carrie’s destructive telekinetic powers are the result of her conception by marital rape. An act of violence committed by her own father forced her into the world—why shouldn’t she be a monster?

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall, Book One in Hilary Mantel’s prize-sweeping Thomas Cromwell trilogy (she’s picked up a Booker, the National Book Critic Circle Award for fiction, and a billion other nominations), opens with Walter Cromwell beating the living shit out of Thomas, his son, who goes on to change the course of history by masterminding Henry VIII’s annulment to Katherine of Aragon and paving the way for Anne Boleyn to claim the queenship of England. We never have to ask why Thomas is so loyal to Cardinal Wolsey and then, later, Henry VIII—his character is revealed in that stomach-turning opening moment. Thomas is fatherless. No matter how he longs for one (he later becomes quite a good parent himself), he’ll always be waiting for the next kick.

The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials Trilogy), Philip Pullman

I once made a passionate vow to name my first daughter Lyra, because there was no one I looked up to more. I can’t tell you how many times I fell asleep in the fan fiction version of a daydream, imagining myself Lyra, winnowing through an air grate in Mrs. Coulter’s freakish daemon separating lab, slipping between the seams of different, overlapping worlds. Lyra is infallibly loyal, and street-smart, and she’s no snob; this, we love her for. She’s also a superb liar, a handy skill for a kid with no one looking after her, and rejects her given surname to call herself “Silvertongue” instead. Lyra is her own child—she’s calling the shots, and if she ever has a family, it will be one of her making. Lyra doesn’t do self-pity. After she learns that her father abandoned her by choice, she gets the fuck over it to deal with love and her destiny—you know, the little things. 

Schroder, Amity Gaige

Oh, Erik Schroder. It hurts me to name you here, because I would have done anything for a dad like you. I would have followed you anywhere, just like your Meadow. Read this book for its heart, for its language, and for the conversations between father and daughter, in all their intimacy and later, estrangement, and always for all their love. He extends his visitation weekend with his daughter Meadow too long, cobbling together a getaway plan that would be romantic (at moments it is), if it wasn’t so desperately sad. Erik doesn’t fail Meadow until he lies about why, what, and who (Erik’s true self) they’re running from. In trying to demonstrate his love for his daughter, in not bearing a life without her, he stumbles.

A Little Princess, Frances Hodgson Burnett

This was a hard choice, as Burnett’s The Secret Garden would also make a notable entry. And try to wipe the movie version from your brain. In that slightly altered story, Sara’s mother, a cold and distant beauty, is more overtly reprehensible than her father. In the 1905 novel, Sara Crewe is left at Miss Minchin’s boarding school in London, because her dashing Captain father has some stuff to do overseas, and she, of course, must learn how to be a woman and have manners. Sara lovingly, tearfully watches his escape from her window, and let me just say: as a fatherless kid, I didn’t buy this for a second. Sara would have been a clear asset on his voyage. She deserved better.

The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood

Captain Norval Chase, button factory mogul of Port Ticonderoga, is an injured WWI veteran and a horrible alcoholic. His daughters, the abstracted, Ophelia-esque Laura, and the practical, hawk-eyed Iris, live an alienated life in their family-owned mansion Avilion—both envied and scorned by their less well-off neighbors, most of whom are employed by Captain Chase. Their father is a mystery to them. Red-eyed, silent, full of a bitterness they can’t understand. This home is not a happy place, no matter how the sisters love each other. No Atwood novel is what it seems to be, and this one has an exhilaratingly complicated plot—there’s a sci-fi romance novel buried within the novel, whose authorship is thrown increasingly into question.

The Man Who Loved Children, Christina Stead

Louie Pollit, fat, clumsy, self-deluding, harum-scarum, helpless as jelly, perpetually embarrassed, and one of the best characters I’ve ever read, is the only kid in this novel remotely capable of surviving Sam Pollit. Father Pollit prides himself on being a man who loves children. He impregnates his miserable wife Henny over and over again, until his seven children drag the whole family to slovenly destitution. Sam Pollit’s charismatic voice is a hodge-podge of sing-songy nonsense, hyperbole, nicknames, and outright fantasy. His speeches, which fill much of this hefty book, and Sam’s manner of delivering them, define the Pollit home life. This family exists in Sam’s onslaught of words, for better and mostly for worse. Sam’s a terrible father because he never sees his children as anything other than an extension of himself.

Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov

My cheap shot. Where’s Lolita’s Dad? Does anyone even remember? He’s dead, right? The point is: he’s out of the picture. Perhaps then, we must forgive him for Lolita’s fate, though surely we can’t forgive her mother, the wretched, self-involved Charlotte, who throws herself at her boarder, Humbert Humbert, even as he masterminds her murder and the subsequent molestation of her nymphet (faunlet) daughter, Lolita. Nabokov, arguably the greatest writer ever, complicates the whole sordid situation by making it Lolita, a 12-year-old girl, who initiates sex with her stepfather. Not only is Lolita missing a Dad, she also wins the world’s worst stepfather award.

Call it Sleep, Henry Roth

Did you ever get lost as a kid? In Henry Roth’s modernist classic, published in 1934, and chronicling the life of a Jewish immigrant family living in the ghettos of the Lower East Side, there’s a disorienting scene when little David Schearl (one of literature’s Very Sensitive Young Boys) gets lost on a cold afternoon, just as day transitions to evening. Though he asks various strangers for directions, David’s Yiddish inflected English causes everyone to misunderstand him, leading him further and further from home. Which isn’t such a bad thing—part of you wants him never to make it back. David’s father Albert is a violent man, clearly at odds with this new world that he can’t find his place in. Everybody in this book struggles to understand each other with little success. David can’t match his inner world to the world around him, especially within his own family.

This Boy’s Life, Tobias Wolff

We meet Toby when he and his mother are on the run, fleeing Toby’s abusive father, following their luck to Utah where they hope to strike it rich mining uranium. Toby and his mother have an airless, not always healthy closeness, emphasized by a parade of often violent boyfriend/ stepfather figures. In keeping with fellow fatherless kids on this list, Toby is a liar, with a vivid imagination that gets him both into trouble and out of it. Just before he’s due to start his new life in academia, he travels to California to visit his father, who disappears to Vegas with a girlfriend. But Toby, embodying his chosen namesake Jack London, one-ups his own shame and humiliation by writing this book—a coming of age story so good it’s set the standard for every bildungsroman to follow.

Jane Eyre (Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte)
Nick Flynn (Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, Nick Flynn)
Lily Owens (The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Kidd)
Ree (Winter’s Bone, Daniel Woodrell)
Matilda (Matilda, Roald Dahl)

Julie Buntin is the Director of Programs & Strategic Outreach at CLMP. Her prose has appeared in the Sonora ReviewExplosion-Proof, and is forthcoming in One Teen Story

44 Comments / Post A Comment


Wolf Hall! Sara Crewe! Margaret Atwood! The fan fiction version of a daydream! Julie Buntin, this post is EVERYTHING


@LilRedCorvette I seriously need to re-read Blind Assassin.


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I also once vowed to name my child Lyra.


It's been a long time since I've read Lolita, but didn't Charlotte Haze go absolutely ballistic when she found Humbert's diary and read about his infatuation with her daughter? Like, she was storming out of the house in a blind fury to denounce his ass when she got hit by the car, right?


@wharrgarbl That's right. Also, I attribute all the wacky and desperate-seeming stuff she does to the unreliable narrator effect.


@wharrgarbl When he goes through the fragments of her letters after her death, there's one sending Lo to a very very strict boarding school with notes on how terrible she is, and one to Humbert "Maybe in a year's time, my love."


yep i guess that's right.


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"Not only is Lolita missing a Dad, she also wins the world’s worst stepfather award."

....? am I reading this wrong, like she's winning an award for being the worst stepfather?


@noodge She wins a terrible stepfather.

Queen of Pickles

@noodge The award for having the worst stepfather - like having the biggest tomato at the festival, or the most beautiful pig.


I have too many Lolita thoughts after taking a research seminar focusing on Nabokov, but "cheap shot" is right. I don't think you're doing Mama Haze or Dolores any favors with your interpretation. Especially on the topic of whether Lolita "initiates" sexual contact with Humbert or not. I mean, Humbert's narrating the damn story, after all.


@yeah-elle For serious.


@yeah-elle "we must forgive him for Lolita’s fate". I mean, sure, if we must forgive all rapists for their victims fate, then this sentence makes sense. Otherwise. No.


@smartastic I think that bit was referring to the dead Dad.


@yeah-elle Yeah, can we not call Lolita a "nymphet?" She is A VICTIM OF SEXUAL ABUSE, not a "nymphet." Gross.


Jake Chambers from the Dark Tower series has an absentee father, although he gets a gunslinger as a surrogate, so maybe he wins.

And I want to say Superman, but you can't really fault Jor-El for being absent, what with the planet exploding and all. And even then, his ass managed to get a basically sentient hologram of himself down to ol' Kal-El on earth.

Does Jesus count?


@paperbackwriter Clark has Pa Kent!


@anachronistique WHO GOES AND DIES ON HIS ASS.


"I and my Father are one." John 10:30

I don't think that counts as absentee. Deadbeat is debatable, as omnipotent Dad let son die a horrible death.


@Dancercise There isn't a judge in the world who would buy the "I and my Father are one" defense.


Sometimes I feel like the only person who was a girl in the 90s who didn't like that movie version of A Little Princess.


@anachronistique It was one of the ones they always showed at sleepovers and birthday parties and I never understood its appeal. All I see when I think of it is those early scenes with the gifts and the big gang of girls at the school. Eh.

This was such a good read, by the way; I've put quuiiite a few on my wish list.


@anachronistique I both love it intensely (because the scene at the end with her father makes me sob and sob and sob) and am irritated by how not at all like the book it is, and have felt this way about it since I was a child. (Also I have a very strong memory of trying to muffle my crying in the theater by smushing my face into the seatback in front of me, either at that film or the version of The Secret Garden that was released around the same time, because at 9 years old I was convinced that I should be "grown-up" enough not to cry and I didn't want my mother to notice. Of course I was almost full-on wailing, so she obviously did notice, but wisely said nothing until I brought it up years later.)


He buys her all sorts of absurd toys, and he leaves. He never writes, and then dies and left her NOTHING. And the DOLL, he didn't even pay for the DOLL. I never saw it. OF COURSE.


@Bootsandcats It's made pretty clear in the book, at least, that Captain Crewe adores child-Sara but hasn't a clue what to do with her, as he's very, very young and probably grew up being told that his job as a husband and father was to provide, not raise. Also, the idea that the "climate" in India was "unhealthy" for children was pervasive. Not that I forgive him but he wasn't at all prepared for, uh, life, and was practically a boy himself. And he didn't pay for the doll because his investments failed and didn't recover until after he *died*.


@squishycat I have not read this book in ages and I AM GOING TO RESOLVE THAT THIS WEEK.

Oh, Captain Crewe. You really were helpless.

Valley Girl

I really enjoy and appreciate this little bit of Father's Day content for "the rest of us". I usually guiltily feel like griping about the holiday is somehow an affront to people who loved and lost their dads and have a hard time with the day. But we absently fathered kids deserve a space too :)

I remember a couple of Gary Paulsen books hitting the "young boy on the cusp of adulthood abandoned by father" angle that seemed big in the 80s. I guess Hatchet shouldn't really count because that kid was abandoned by EVERYBODY...but Wiki just confirmed that he was on the way to visit divorced dad for the summer when his plane crashed. And, yup, Dear Mr. Henshaw hit it too: he learns "his parents will never re-marry, people will continue to steal his lunch even though he has made a alarm for his lunch box, and that he can never count on his father to be available when he is needed but, he does pay support checks".

rebecca the brave

@Valley Girl
That is such a good real-world/real-talk line.
I'm into this list. I usually rage-avoid mother's day and father's day and am loving this ode to the functionally dadless.


@Valley Girl I hear ya. Mother's Day is getting harder for me each year because I want to be a mother so badly; Christmas is not far below in terms of pain and my realisation of how some people actually find comfort from their families (rather than mine which has to be negotiated with combined skills of soldier and diplomat). So now Mother's Day, Father's Day and Christmas have this undercurrent for me of thinking of everyone who finds the day painful rather than a blithe celebration. internet hugs!


Needs more Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

Also I feel bound to point out that all the creepy aspects of female society in Carrie come from woman's place as sex object in the patriarchy -- and that it was all depicted by a male author.


Did anyone else read "Queenie Peavey"? 'Queenie Peavey's daddy was once in the chain gang...' That was was some pretty good giving-up-illusions-about-dad stuff right there.


Love this esp re The Little Princess. I just started reading it to my six year old and she doesn't like it. WTF?
Can we add The Railway Children? An absent Dad but in a wronged, heroic way.

I grew up without a dad too so Fathers Day is a slight sadness for me. I have one but he left so no card.

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No comments on Golden Compass yet? I was totally going to name my daughter Lyra, but my husband didn't like it. Maybe I should have made him read the books. She's so loveably precocious and badass, and her parents are the WORST.


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