Family Ties: Childhood, Motherhood, and Fatherhood in Literature

April 15, 2009 | 14 books mentioned 11

In advance of Mother’s and and Father’s Day (May 10 and June 21 respectively) I am putting together a catalog of the best representations of Childhood, Motherhood, and Fatherhood in literature.

There is a long list of great childhood memoirs, many of which pivot around either a mother or a father. So far I’ve got:

An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War that Came Between Us by James Carroll
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
An American Childhood by Annie Dillard
The Color of Water by James McBride
Growing Up by Russell Baker
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

When it comes to fiction, many books involve mothers and fathers, but fewer are specifically focused on themes of what it is to be a mom or a dad. Some of the titles below are specifically about the parent-child relationship, while for others the connection is there, but it’s more of a stretch.

About mothers, sons and daughters:

A Mother and Two Daughters by Gail Godwin
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth
The Scarlett Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

About fathers, daughters and sons:

A Death in the Family by James Agee
Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens
Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Independence Day by Richard Ford
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (perusing blogs and discussion groups, Atticus Finch might be the most beloved literary father of them all)
King Lear by Shakespeare
The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy
The Risk Pool by Richard Russo
Washington Square by Henry James

I’ll send out the complete list once it’s compiled. Any suggestions welcome!

, a staff writer for The Millions, writes the Brainiac ideas column for the Boston Globe and blogs about fatherhood and family life at You can follow him on Twitter at @kshartnett.


  1. American Pastoral strikes me as the most fitting Roth book (granted, I haven't read Portnoy's Complaint in a while), though it would fit under the "fathers and daughters" category.

  2. I'll throw some out:
    Fathers and Sons: The Road by Cormac McCarthy, The Chosen by Chaim Potok

    Mothers and Fathers and Sons: Lost in Yonkers by Neil Simon

    Mothers and Sons: The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

    Mothers: Beloved by Toni Morrison

    Childhood: Jim the Boy by Tony Earley

    Father and Daughter: Disgrace by JM Coetzee

  3. The Sky Isn't Visible From Here, Felicia Sullivan's memoir about, among other things, her mother.

  4. Father and Son (and a mother too): Jack by A.M Homes.

    Mother and Sons: Don't Tell Alfred by Nancy Mitford.

    "Father" and daughter": Silas Marner by George Eliot.

    Parents and children The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

    Truman Capote has interesting parent/child relationships in "Other Voices, Other Rooms" and "Summer Crossing".

  5. "Veronica" by Mary Gaitskill — the mother-daughter and father-daughter reflections, as they impact adult emotional life, are quite moving.

    "The First Day" (short story) by Edward P. Jones.

    "Nathan Coulter" by Wendell Berry.

    "World's Fair" by EL Doctorow

  6. With Tobias going with Mom and Geoffrey sticking with Dad, the two memoirs by the Wolff brothers, This Boy's Life and Duke of Deception, both comprise amazing stories and circumstances masterfully written.

  7. Fathers and Sons, Reynolds Prices's "The Surface of the Earth", "The Source of Light" and "The Promise of Rest", Father and Daughter Alice Sebolds's "The Lovely Bones" and Barbara's Kinsolver's "The Poisonwood Bible".

  8. Old Father Goriot by Balzac
    Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell
    The Warden, Doctor Thorne, Framley Parsonage and many more novels by Anthony Trollope
    Father and Son by Edmund Gosse
    Letter to my Father by Franz Kafka
    The Shiralee by D'Arcy Niland
    The short story At Schindler's by David Malouf (from his collection Dream stuff)
    Mothers and Sons (Colm Tobin)

  9. I prefer non-fiction; here are some suggestions:

    Anthony Swofford: Hotels, Hospitals & Jails
    Christina Crawford: Mommie Dearest
    Jeannette Walls: The Glass Castle
    Augusten Burroughs: Running With Scissors
    Rick Bragg: All Over But the Shoutin’
    Mary Karr: Liars’ Club
    Barbara Robinette Moss: Change Me Into Zeus’ Daughter
    Sherwin Nuland: Lost in America

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