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Father’s Day: Essential Reading

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This month, Literary Mama's editors and columnists have searched our bookshelves and memory banks to tell you what books about fathering and fathers have made a lasting impression on us. This is our Essential Reading: Father's Day Edition.

Susan Ito, Fiction Co-Editor and Columnist, names Marilynne Robinson's novel: "Gilead is set in a quiet, small town of the same name in the middle of the Iowa prairie. The year is 1956, and 76-year old Reverend John Ames is close to the end of his life. As a way to soften the blow of his upcoming death (His heart is failing.), he begins writing a letter to his young son -- a winding, careful account of himself and his forbearers" (Bookslut). This letter, which stretches to book length, is profoundly moving, and the love that is expressed is infinite. It's the perfect Father's Day love letter."

Stephanie Hunt, Columns Editor, writes about another father-son novel: "Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton is a story about wise love and fortitude, injustice and courage, hope and forgiveness. Though the backdrop is apartheid South Africa, the real story unfolds between a father and son, and between two fathers who both lose their sons. The main character, Zulu pastor Stephen Kumalo, is Gandhi, Jesus, Mandela, and Abraham, all rolled into one very believable and remarkable man. If I could ever meet one fictional character at a fantasy dinner, I would wish for him. I recently listened to this book on tape while traveling, after having first read it decades ago, and the lyrical quality of the Afrikaner accent and gorgeous words gave the powerful prose even more emotional resonance. I don't even remember the trip I was on, only that I didn't want the book to end."

Rebecca Kaminsky, Literary Reviews Editor and Columnist, writes: "At the top of my Father's Day list is Barak Obama's Dreams from My Father. This was a lovely tribute to the role that a father's absence/presence can play in the life of a man. Even more importantly, I find it telling to look at the drama of the family-of-origin of a man who may be our next Commander in Chief.

"Next, I would have to go with the Wrinkle in Time series and the Austin books by Madeleine L'Engle. The fathers in these books were my fantasy dads growing up."

Caroline Grant, Literary Reflections Editor and Columnist, also names the fathers in Madeleine L'Engle, especially A Ring of Endless Light, which depicts one summer in the life of Vicky Austin, as she and her family accompany her grandfather lovingly through his last few months of life. "I treasure this book for introducing me to some poetry loved by my own father -- the sonnets of John Donne -- which Grandfather Eaton painted on the wall of the children's bedroom. I enjoyed reading Grandfather Eaton and Vicky's conversations about books and writing."

Shari MacDonald, Creative Nonfiction Editor and Columnist, writes: "When I read The Brothers K by David James Duncan in the mid-1990s, it woke me up in exactly the way only great literature can do. The story of "Papa Toe" Chance and his family, The Brothers K is, on various levels, a tale of baseball, family, religion/not-religion, and war/peace. But that's sort of like saying that Huckleberry Finn is a story about a boy. Which it is. But it's also so much more.

"While I am utterly ignorant about baseball, this wasn't a problem in the slightest; I was riveted by this gorgeous novel, which is breathtaking and meandering in all the best ways, like a river -- fitting, since water, like baseball, is among the author's greatest loves. This is the book that woke me up to how beautiful and life-changing writing truly can be. It has topped of my list of favorite books ever since that first reading. And while I am open to the possibility that another book may knock it from its position as favorite someday, I suspect that any novel that can accomplish this feat will very likely be written by Duncan, too."

Suzanne Kamata, Fiction Co-Editor, names Life As We Know It by Michael Berube. "Berube, a professor, writes with great intelligence and humor about becoming the father of a boy with Down syndrome. He writes about what it means to be a dad, and also about what it means to be alive."

Amy Mercer, E-zine Co-Editor, writes about quite a different father-child memoir, The Glass Castle: "On Christmas Eve, when Jeannette Walls was five years old, her father took her out into the desert night to look up at the stars.

Dad loved to talk about the stars. He explained to us how they rotated through the night sky as the earth turned. He taught us how to identify the constellations and how to navigate by the North Star. Those shining stars, he liked to point out, were one of the special treats for people like us who lived out in the wilderness. Rich city folks, he'd say, lived in fancy apartments, but their air was so polluted they couldn't even see the stars. We'd have to be out of our minds to want to trade places with any of them. "Pick out your favorite star," Dad said that night. He told me I could have it for keeps. He said it was my Christmas present.

Jeannette's dad made a lot of mistakes in his lifetime, but he made the rest beautiful.

Libby Gruner, Columnist, suggests reading about the father-daughter relationship depicted in I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith: "I love the way it depicts the growth of a writer, the main character, who is coming into her own voice while she helps her father reclaim his."

Helaine Olen's (Profiles and Reviews Associate Editor) "favorite books are father/daughter -- dare I say it -- love stories. The first is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. Francie Nolan's father is a neer-do-well alcoholic, but he adores his daughter and, in return, she places him at the center of her world. The second is Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books. Any cursory look at a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder can tell you her father was a not particularly successful restless dreamer. But that's not how Laura, looking back at her life in her sixties and seventies, remembered him. Instead she recalled a man who could forever charm her with his music and his tales."

Kate Haas, Creative Nonfiction Editor, also writes about children's literature: "Even though I'm all grown up now, one of my favorite fathers in all of literature is Myron Krupnik, the father in Lois Lowry's Anastasia series. Mr. Krupnik, a bearded, gentle professor and poet, always listens carefully to Anastasia and takes her seriously. He's able to talk to her about the big stuff (love and death), and he also has a terrific sense of humor and isn't afraid to let his daughter see his weaknesses. I love the part where he and Anastasia discuss "the inward eye" of poetry, and conclude that memory's inward eye is sustaining Anastasia's dying grandmother. It's such a tender scene and says so much about age and loss and how a parent conveys these huge issues to a child."

Marjorie Osterhout, Senior Editor, also found an essential book during her childhood: "I lived in the south during the sixties, a racially charged time and place that left me confused and scared as a young girl. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee helped me untangle those feelings and, through the character of Atticus Finch, understand that people are neither purely good nor purely evil. More importantly, this strong father's lessons to his own children helped me understand that I myself could live through horrible experiences and not be damaged by them, that I could reject despair and always find something to celebrate and be grateful for. Reading "Mockingbird" was a formative experience for me, and my ancient, dog-eared paperback is one of my most treasured books."

Kathy Moran, Literary Reflections Assistant Editor, names Lee's novel as well, writing: "A worthy novel draws me into its world, prompting me to read quickly, as I can't stand the suspense, yet compelling me to read slowly because I can't bear to leave the characters and community when I reach the last page. To Kill a Mockingbird is that kind of book, and the character of Atticus Finch -- who embodies integrity, determination, empathy, and compassion -- teaches his children these ideals the only way he knows how: by living them out in every aspect of his life. I used this book when I taught freshman English and loved to see my students make personal application to the lessons Atticus strived to teach Scout and Jem."

And Violeta Garcia-Mendoza, Literary Reflections Assistant Editor, the newest parent on our staff, writes: "This is my first Father's Day with a dad on my shopping list. Having grown up without a present father, I am daily in awe of the essential role my husband plays with our son and daughter. It's opening up my eyes to the presence of other fathers everywhere, both the flesh and bone ones in the community around me and the ones spun out of golden words on the page. Among these are those imagined by Khaled Hosseini, who, in addition to writing not-to-be-missed fiction, also writes great fathers.

In his The Kite Runner and his more recent A Thousand Splendid Suns, he populates his characters' worlds with a constellation of counter-pointing fathers; cruel, selfish, haunted men set beside men who make choices of compassion, honor, redemption, forgiveness, and love. This year, I may just wrap up my copies of these titles and place them in my husband's hands, as a nod of understanding to the fact that it is a challenging and great thing to be a father, and that we are all so blessed to have him in our lives."

Anastasia series by Lois Lowry
the Austin books by Madeleine L'Engle
Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton
The Brothers K by David James Duncan
Dreams From My Father by Barak Obama
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
Life As We Know It by Michael Berube
Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder
A Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L'Engle
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Wrinkle in Time series by Madeleine L'Engle


Kathy Moran, former Literary Reflections Editor, has two grown boys and three granddaughters. A retired secondary language arts teacher and literary magazine adviser, Kathy currently works as a teacher consultant for the Greater Kansas City Writing Project and editor of their newsletter Composing Ourselves. Kathy’s reflections can be found at Marmee’s Corner.


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