Family Relationships

by Ida Fogle, Library Associate
Originally published by Columbia Daily Tribune.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

What do Dave Eggers and Christopher Buckley have in common? They have both written memoirs about the experience of losing two parents in one year, and both include large doses of humor with the heartbreak. Eggers was only 21 when his father and mother succumbed to cancer within a few weeks of each other, leaving Dave in charge of his 8-year-old brother. His memoir, “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” (Simon & Schuster, 2000), will have readers laughing and crying, often at the same time. Many of Buckley’s ordeals, recounted in “Losing Mum and Pup” (Twelve, 2009), will be familiar to folks of the middle-age persuasion — the reversal of caretaking roles, for instance. But his discussion of issues inherent in having larger-than-life parents will be less familiar to most of us. For him, any argument with Dad was a debate with William F. Buckley Jr., one of the sharpest political pundits of the 20th century.

Parent-child relationships have always proved a bountiful source of material for literature. From Sophocles’ classic tragedy “Oedipus the King” (circa 429 B.C.) to the hilarious musings of Paul Reiser in “Familyhood” (Hyperion, 2010), there is no emotional territory left unexplored when it comes to the portrayal of mothers and fathers in both memoir and fiction.

The Glass Castle

For memoirs that will give you an emotional workout, check out some of the following titles. “Love in the Driest Season” (Three Rivers Press, 2005) is the story of Neely Tucker, a white American journalist and his black wife, Vita, who relocated to Zimbabwe, where they volunteered at an orphanage and fell in love with a little girl who they believed might have AIDS. If you want to ride a wave of good feeling, try Terry Ryan’s account of her mother, aka “The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio” (Simon & Schuster, 2001). While her alcoholic husband invested his wages in liquid assets, Evelyn Ryan kept her family of 12 afloat by composing advertising jingles for contests as she did the ironing. She converted her facility for language into money, cars, appliances and grocery shopping sprees while bequeathing her children the legacy of a can-do spirit. Less cheerful but touching is David Sheff’s book “Beautiful Boy” (Houghton Mifflin, 2008), wherein Sheff finds himself in a rivalry with methamphetamines for his son’s devotion. If you’re looking for quirkiness, nothing beats “The Glass Castle” (Scribner, 2006). Jeannette Walls’ parents were eccentric and then some. Add a heavy-drinking inventor father to an artistic, free-spirited mother, and the sum is a childhood of poverty and adventure, where bill collectors are more common than working utilities.


For readers who prefer fiction, parents are well-represented there, too. In today’s world, “Silas Marner” (1861) by George Eliot would never be approved to adopt a child. But the reclusive miser turns out to be a pretty good father to the little girl who wanders into his life. Father and daughter both learn love really is more important than money. Unlike Marner’s daughter, Park So-nyo’s family members do not appreciate what they have until it’s gone. Kyung-Sook Shin’s book “Please Look After Mom” (Knopf, 2011) is the tale of an elderly woman who vanishes one day from a Seoul train platform. From the first pages, it’s apparent Mom has been gradually disappearing for years, as her children have grown busy with their own lives and her husband has paid her little attention. In “Beloved” (Knopf, 1987), Toni Morrison’s post-Civil War novel, a lost soul reappears. Sethe, a former slave, is consumed with mourning for the young daughter who died years earlier. One day, the daughter’s spirit arrives on Sethe’s doorstep in the form of a young woman. Through her we see the ghosts of slavery are not easily banished. In “Room” (Little, Brown and Co., 2010), Emma Donoghue introduces us to another mother struggling to survive in extraordinary circumstances. Five-year-old Jack has spent his entire life in one room, just he and Ma, who makes sure Jack exercises, learns to read and eats the vegetables Old Nick brings on his otherwise unwelcome visits.

A Thousand Acres

Various authors show us there is no such thing as normal or tidy when it comes to family relationships. The setting for “A Thousand Acres” (Anchor Books, 2003) by Jane Smiley is a Midwest family farm in the 1970s. But the seemingly average Cook family is living out a 20th-century version of Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” complete with the division of the estate, the exile of one daughter, the love triangles and the onset of patriarchal madness. In Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections” (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2001), Enid Lambert comes to a realization: “What you discovered about yourself in raising children wasn’t always agreeable or attractive.” Still, Enid dreams of one last family Christmas with their three grown children before the health of her husband, Alfred, declines too much. Their kids’ lives are falling apart in different ways, and Enid’s campaign to bring them together reveals the weaknesses and the strengths of their family ties. There are power struggles galore but also acts of incredible love and self-sacrifice, which gives them a lot in common with many real-life families.

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