Posted by: jeannineatkins | June 16, 2008

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.


  1. Brilliant, insightful post, Jeannine. Lots of food for thought here. Thanks!

  2. Jama, that is a relief to hear. I put “father” and “books” in my brain and this came out; I really wasn’t sure that anyone would say anything but “huh?” so thank you for that. I can go on with my day now.

  3. Great thoughts.
    I’ve been thinking about this one, because the fathers in my books always wind up being problematic, but I think I’ve been a little shy of pulling together a post for fear my own family will see that and misunderstand. My own father already tends to project and assume my books are more about him than they are.
    But the fathers in my own books tend to be part of the story problem, and to be either well-intentioned but flawed and fumbling and someone the protagonist has to come to terms with, or else to be aggressive and difficult and to actually play the role of an antagonist in the story.
    One day I’ll write a fully functional father, but I haven’t yet. The closest I’ve come is in Secret, where the father actually is mostly absent, and so idealized by the protagonist.

  4. Of course the fully functioning father, lovely in life, may be boring in a book. I mean even the Great Prince of the Forest, or whoever was Bambi’s dad or sort of dad, had to have his issues.

  5. Exactly.
    And making parents part of the problem is, I think, a great way to keep them on-stage yet not in a position to fix all the protagonist’s problems. 🙂

  6. Wow
    This is a great post. It’s one that will pop back into mind the next time I pick up a book that explicitly or implicitly is in search of dad.

  7. Re: Wow
    Thank you for the wow! It was an intriguing theme and I’m still pondering now and then, too. I hope to post in a few days about New England writer Sarah Orne Jewett and her supportive dad.

  8. Re: Wow
    Your blog is new to me and looks fantastic! I’m adding you to my friends list and hope to catch up on some of your older posts– also in the next few days!

  9. About Fathers
    I enjoyed your post. When thinking about what to write for the Kid-Lit Carnival, my thoughts also ran to the fathers who aren’t there: Sara Crewe’s father in A Little Princess, Pollyanna’s father, and the absent Mr. March. Maybe girls love their fathers so much that the deep love is easily expressed when combined with the deep pain of separation. But then Scout’s love for Atticus shines due to his constant presence. Just rambling here. Anyway, thank you for your post.

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