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In Books, Dad's Often in the Background


Article by Mary Ellin Arch

Photography by Jude Beck on Unsplash

June is the month we celebrate all things “Dad.” Why not gift yours with a book featuring a strong father figure? Or, if you’re a dad yourself, set aside some time on your special day to lose yourself in a book that showcases an amazing father.

You might be surprised at some of the selections below. Several are unexpected, to say the least. Fathers are often cast in the shadows in literature, but they’re there, quietly providing, protecting, and offering wise counsel. As you read, pay attention to the dads. I bet you’ll come away with a new appreciation for both the stories and the characters of the fathers.

Saga, Vols. 1-9, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

This graphic novel is an epic space fantasy about an interspecies family and its struggle to just live a peaceful life while constantly fleeing prejudice and persecution on a galactic scale. The series is full of fantastical creatures (think aliens with heads that look like old-style iMacs and girlfriends that look like spider creatures), but Marco, husband of Alana and father of young Hazel, is the one to watch. He’s the inspirational head-of-the-family who segues seamlessly between swordfights and marital sex, battling bad guys and cuddling his baby. Marco is front-and-center in Saga (unlike the largely supporting father-actors in the other books reviewed below), and the story is full of action and gore, making this a great gift option for dad. Speaking of dads in supporting roles, you'll want to pay attention to Prince Robot IV. An intriguing character initially cast as a villain, IV's character growth over the series arc, especially pertaining to his son, the Princeling Squire, makes the reader question previous loyalties. The series is on hiatus now, so it’s a good time to check out the first nine volumes. 4 out of 5.

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

This pick is no surprise. Harper Lee’s classic is widely described as a coming-of-age story focusing on young Scout and her formative years in the Deep South during the era of racial segregation and bigotry, but everyone also loves her father, the lawyer Atticus Finch. Finch is a true hero, a widower raising two children virtually alone, upholding truth and justice not only in wise fatherly lessons about honesty and academic excellence, but also in the courtroom, representing a black man falsely accused of rape. Scout, and to a lesser extent, the mysterious Boo Radley, tend to get most of the attention whenever this book is discussed; don’t give Atticus short shrift. If it’s been a while since you’ve read this Pulitzer-Prize winner and perennial favorite, it’s worth another look. 5 out of 5.

Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomery

Fathers of daughters, there’s probably a copy of this classic in your little girl’s room. Sneak in there right now and have a read. Feisty orphan Anne will always be the star of this story, but don’t miss the many contributions of quiet, introverted Matthew Cuthbert, “the shyest man alive” who “hated to have to go among strangers where he might have to talk.” Loquacious, bubbly, free-spirited Anne dubs Matthew a “kindred spirit” upon their first introduction, and it doesn’t take long for the reader to understand why. This mismatched duo is bound by love, a fatherly feeling Matthew never knew he had in him. The reader isn’t surprised when Matthew initially delegates all child-rearing to prim and proper spinster sister Marilla, and cheers when the reticent adoptive uncle tentatively, and then more forcefully, finds his voice in exerting a welcome fatherly influence. This classic holds up very well in our so-called modern times; if you prefer, there are several movie and TV versions as well. 5 out of 5.

A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving

Again, the main focus in John Irving’s classic is on tiny Owen, with his squeaky voice and his unfailing belief that he is “God’s instrument” with an important mission in life, and his seemingly ordinary friend John Wheelwright, whom we get to see grow older and wiser as he narrates the story of Owen’s short but remarkable life. Johnny’s stepfather, Dan Needham, is a minor character in the book, but his influence on both Johnny and Owen is anything but. Any man who’s found himself in the role of substitute dad should study Dan Needham, who balances the roles of father-figure and friend in perfect proportions. Johnny’s mother dies (at Owen’s inadvertent hand; thus the “God’s instrument” belief) not long after Needham comes into Johnny’s life, and he wisely doesn’t try too hard to impose himself onto Johnny’s grieving or growing up, instead maturing into a steady confidante and counselor for both his stepson and his best friend. A long, Dickensian kind of read, so probably not for everyone; I loved this book, but my book club didn’t. 3.5 out of 5.

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens

Think of this holiday classic and who comes to mind? Scrooge, Marley and Tiny Tim, of course. Poor Bob Cratchit gets relegated to “also starring” status. For a character crafted in the 19th century, Cratchit is a surprisingly modern dad – a tender, compassionate and loving man, with high ideals and moral courage, who along with the Spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come, inspires the miser Scrooge to mend his penny-pinching, soul-sucking ways. This one’s a quickie, a novella of just 100 pages, with numerous movie versions that flesh out Cratchit well (my favorite: the George C. Scott version). 5 out of 5.