When I charged myself to meditate on literature appropriate to Mother’s Day, the first book that popped into my head was Kate Chopin’s 1899 novel The Awakening. The central character is a mother so disconnected from her motherhood that she has almost no memory of giving birth, no idea of how to relate to her children in a meaningful and satisfying way, and neither maternal love nor sense of purpose sufficient to protect her from escapist fantasy and real despair. Not exactly what I was looking for. Yet so often literary mothers are fascinating failures, nagging harridans, well-intentioned but misguided obstacles, or, at best, interesting characters whose attraction lies in what they are besides mothers. I find that the mothers in children’s books are more often my maternal models, even if their characters lack the complexity of their counterparts in adult fiction. In particular, I have always been fond of the mothers in Maj Lindman’s Flicka, Ricka, Dicka and Snipp, Snapp, Snurr books. Published in the ‘30’s, ‘40’s and ‘50’s, the books depict predictably domestic moms, yet the stories feature children who are not so much dependent on their mothers as inspired by them and guided by their ethical wisdom. My boys love the vibrant old illustrations, as did I in my childhood. But now, I especially love the stories– stories of children trying to surprise their mothers with ambitious presents, working for things they care about and earning money that they will spend on others because their mothers quietly approve their industry and compassion. Not that any of us are picture-book mothers; there’s probably a good reason that Chopin’s ill-fated Edna came so readily to my mind. Besides, there are certainly fulfilling depictions of motherhood to be found in literary worlds less rosy than Lindman’s. For sources of maternal inspiration from the trenches of adulthood, read on.
“Four Worlds” Columnist Avery Fischer Udagawa recommends Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel, Flight Behavior: “It has drawn attention for its focus on climate change, but it takes my breath away with its portrayal of a young Tennessee mother who (spoiler alert) leaves an unhappy marriage to do right by her children– and her good-hearted husband, with whom she made a naive choice at a tender age. Kingsolver brilliantly captures the glories and tragedies of rural, red-state life, the disconnects between this life and the life of scientists and the minutiae of raising a toddler and a five-year-old. (I grew up in a red state, am kin to a scientist and parent a toddler and five-year-old, so I read like a fact checker; Barbara Kingsolver, may I be your fact checker?) Yet it is the mother’s choice of a path often misunderstood that moves me to recommend this book on Mother’s Day.”
Kristina Riggle, Fiction Co-Editor, is taken by a mother who is far from model, but irresistible all the same: “I adored Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells, and the richest, most wonderful and memorable character in it is the mother, Vivi Abbott Walker. I mean ‘wonderful’ in the sense that the character is wonderful to read, not that Vivi is always a wonderful person or a wonderful mother. But the tension and interest in Vivi rest in the contradictions of her life. She’s no angel, nor a villain, and as Vivi and her daughter, Sidda, find their way back toward one another, the way in which they navigate the terrain that separates them is both satisfying and compelling.”