Reading List

For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow

Read to romanticize Dad.

How is the publishing industry marking Father’s Day? With Augusten Burroughs casting his dad as the title animal in his new book, A Wolf at the Table. This is a patriarch so dreadful that he starves guinea pigs and has to be stopped at gun point from beating one of his children to death. Humph. In a spirit more befitting the holiday, how about some reading material that gives dads their due—or more than that, even? Once a year, we all deserve a little romanticizing.

The younger set can glorify Dad by giving him My Dad Is Awesome. No snarky trick ending here: This father segues smoothly from feats of juggling and strength to a one-man band. If it all seems a bit wearing, you can move on to My Dad the Magnificent. In this one, a kid imagines his dad in various glamorous guises, only to realize, when the ordinary real guy turns up, that he’s still “the most magnificent dad in the whole world.” Cue awww, and then put that one back on the bookshelf.

As kids grow older, dads often disappear from the literature they read. Their role is to be the absent object of longing. Many fairy tales, as well as A Little Princess, A Wrinkle in Time, The Wizard of Oz, and  My Father’s Dragon, share the premise that a child must fend for herself because she’s an orphan or might as well be.

But alongside these stories are a pile of father-worshipping books. I like the pep and humor of Mr. Ray in Betsy-Tacy and Tib—maker of Sunday-night suppers and family peace. In the Nancy Drew series, the father never fails to cheer on his daughter’s sleuthing, however vaguely. And perhaps the ur-entry in the genre is Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World. My husband likes to read this one to our sons, so I’m still a bit hazy on some of the plot points. But I’ve picked up enough to understand that Danny’s father is both irresponsible—he leaves his son alone for the night to feed his pheasant-poaching addiction!—and utterly beyond reproach. A more real but also lovable father helps generate some of the best moments of Beverly Cleary’s Beezus and Ramona series. In Ramona and Her Father, Mr. Quimby loses his job and has to put up with his daughters’ campaign to make him quit smoking. He’s got troubles and is the more welcome for it.

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s father, on the other hand, is portrayed as ever-perfect, even as he makes one bad bet after the next. Pa Ingalls tears his wife and children away from the Wisconsin woods, where they have a snug cabin, all the food they can eat, and a large and helpful extended family—all because he must live where he can catch wild game. His wanderlust drives Laura and her mother and sisters from one failed farming venture to the next, in a zig-zag across the West that almost ends in the cold and starvation of The Long Winter of 1880-81, in DeSmet, S.D. And yet Laura the writer never faults her father. In her eyes, he is always the merry, twinkling-eyed fiddler, source of fortitude. The Ingalls Wilder books have spawned a cottage industry of commentary and analysis, some of which debunks the Pa myth: You can read more about the history of that terrible and all-too-real winter in DeSmet here.

The blog We All Fall Down thinks The Long Winter is grim enough to merit comparison with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. That book is too unrelentingly bleak, in its post-apocolyptic imaginings, to romanticize any character, really. And yet the father at its center does manage to feed and protect his son far longer than any normal human would. He’s biblical, anyway.

In his own way, so is Paul Coates, the subject of his son Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new memoir, The Beautiful Struggle. Paul Coates has seven children by four different women. But in the world of urban Baltimore, where “fathers were ghosts,” this one was present in his kids’ lives. “This is a low bar, I know,” his son writes. “But we lived in an era of chronic welchers, where the disgrace was so broad that niggers actually bragged of running out on kids.” Coates, by contrast, “was called to fatherhood like a tainted preacher. … All of us knew he was flawed, but still he retained the aura of a prophet.” In this video, Ta-Nehisi Coates (who I’ve worked with) fills in the religious imagery with detail and reflection. Like a lot of smart and personable offspring, he’s his dad’s best advertisement: the child grown and prospering.