Today is Father’s Day, so you might expect that I will be writing about the worst dads in fiction. But ha! Surprise! Bad dads are too easy; they’re practically stock-in-trade of novels. We are going back to moms.
Readers responded to my Mother’s Day column about the nine worst mothers in literature with enthusiasm. Enthusiasm, and dozens of suggestions, including some bad moms I wasn’t familiar with.
For instance: “Cathy Ames, ‘East of Eden,’ a true psychopath,” wrote Pamela Aasen of Golden Valley.
I was going to look her up — it’s been decades since I read that book — but fortunately Pete Havanac of Blaine also voted for “the vile and notorious Cathy Ames,” and he included some useful details:
“She murders her parents and burns down her family home,” Havanac wrote. “She marries Adam Trask and moves with him to the Salinas Valley, where she continues her evil ways, eventually abandoning her husband and children and moving to town to operate a brothel. I can’t list all the bad things she did over an extended period, but it shocked me when I read the book.”
But wait — don’t settle on her; there’s more.
Lisa Paradis of Eden Prairie suggests Ora Baxter from “The Yearling,” the morbidly obese mother who withheld love from her son because she had lost so many children. (But was she bad? Or pitiful?)
Lynette Lamb of Minneapolis suggests Penny Greenway Blair from Ann Packer’s “The Children’s Crusade.” Penny did not love her children equally and perhaps did not love her youngest child at all. (You want to portray an unnatural mother? Try one who does not love her children.)
Larry Green of Lake Elmo suggests Cinderella’s stepmother, which seems a good nominee, given that she was known as “evil.” (Green pointed out that she actually had a name — Lady Trevaine. Another thing I never knew.)
Deborah Otten of Edina was one of several readers to mention Scarlett O’Hara from “Gone With the Wind.” “She didn’t raise even one of her three kids!” Otten wrote, shaming me, who had not remembered that O’Hara had any kids.(All I remembered was the dress made out of curtains.)
“Sweetness, in Toni Morrison’s ‘God Help the Child,’ is a pretty good argument for the title,” said Ellen Akins of Wisconsin. (Sweetness hated her daughter because of the darkness of the girl’s skin.)
Romaine Scharlemann of Minneapolis chose Viola from “A God in Ruins” by Kate Atkinson, mentioning “Viola’s harsh and neglectful treatment of her children, as well as, let’s not mince words here, her belittling treatment of the genuine hero of this book, her father, Teddy.” (Maybe we should do a whole segment on bad daughters of fiction?)
Kathryn Christenson of St. Peter dipped into English literature for her nominees. “Surely there has to be a Charles Dickens character on your list,” she wrote. “How about Clara Copperfield, mother of David? She won’t stand up for her little boy when he is tormented by her second husband, the dreadful Murdstone. Or Lady Dedlock in ‘Bleak House.’ She marries into the landed gentry, leaving her illegitimate daughter to be raised by a punishing aunt. Honoria Dedlock does repent, but not until way too late.
“Maybe the worst is Miss Havisham in ‘Great Expectations,’ who raises her foster daughter, Estella, to both tempt and hate men.”
Miss Havisham! Miss Havisham! Sitting in her darkened drawing room in her tattered wedding gown, watching the mice scamper across her moldy wedding cake, teaching lovely Estella how to break Pip’s heart. Oh, I think we have a winner.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune’s senior editor for books. On Twitter: @StribBooks. On Facebook: facebook.com/startribunebooks