“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
That’s the first line of the first chapter of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. It’s probably one of the most quoted literary lines of all time because it’s just so potent. Every reader can relate. We all have families. And when you’re in an unhappy situation, every happy family seems the same to you. Shiny. Smiling. Affectionate. Devoted. Loyal. And nothing like your family. It’s like when you’re single and every person you see is one-half of a couple. Meh.
I’m fascinated by the depictions of family in literature, especially the genre that really began in the 1960s that we now call Young Adult. As my eight-year-old might say, “Parents are getting worser and worser.” And, at least, in YA books, this seems to be true. And before you think I’m coming down on YA, you should know I write YA fiction. So I’m not coming down on it or anything. Because I adore it
In her article, “The Problem Parent in Young Adult Lit“, Julie Just argues that before YA fiction, Mom and Dad were simply absent or dead in many books and that made it possible for the hero/orphan to rise up and make a success of himself or herself. Think Dickens.
These days, more often than not, parents in YA books are there, but this is not necessarily a merciful thing. Many of these parents are mentally unstable, substance abusers, and violent at their worst and bumbling, clueless, checked-out narcissists at their best.
I’m not even arguing that these books with the bad parents shouldn’t be read. I read these books and I understand that the main character’s development often takes place because of the parents, or at least in spite of the parents. In my YA novel, Glass Girl, my main character’s mother struggles with grief and depression and disappears in her own way. Story turns on conflict. And turns. And turns.
What I’m wondering, though, is what our take-home message is. Are writers really reflecting reality? And why do stories with two sound, loving parents seem so sappy and unrealistic to us these days?
Look at the single moms in two of the best-selling YA series—Twilight and Hunger Games. Both moms have ceded responsibility over to their daughters. Bella wonders if her own mother, with the “wild, childlike eyes,” will be able to fend for herself, and Katniss has taken over the care of her family because her mother is incapable.
What, I wonder, happened to the Marmees of the literary world? Marmee, the mother in Little Women, capably held her family together while her husband fought in the Civil War. She had trouble finding enough food and keeping them clothed, but she never played the victim and she continued to be the moral compass for the family. Where are the dads like Atticus who stood for something and were respected and loved by their children?
They’re among us, aren’t they? They are your parents and my parents, if we’re blessed with Godly ones. They are the truth that’s better than fiction. They’re the ones who, despite all the distractions of this world, know when to put “things” away and focus on relationships.
Sure, it’s entertaining and revealing to watch young adult characters being strong and independent and making it without an ounce of help from their parents. But tuck away in your hearts and minds that in our own lives in the real world, there’s a better way, a roadmap, a blueprint for making families work. I think you should all read Growing Up Colt by Colt McCoy and his father Brad McCoy if you want to see God’s plan for families in action.
Maybe Tolstoy was onto something and happy families are all alike in that they have chosen to live beyond the reach of the world.
He who fears the Lord has a secure fortress, and for his children it will be a refuge.
Then our sons in their youth will be like well-nurtured plants, and our daughters will be like pillars carved to adorn a palace.