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.
ERIC KENNEDY/ERIC SCHRODER
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)