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Happy Mother’s Day–Moms of Literature

Elizabeth Bastos

Staff Writer

Elizabeth Bastos has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe, and writes at her blog 19th-Century Lady Naturalist. Follow her on Twitter: @elizabethbastos

This is the time of year when we celebrate our mothers with brunches, and bunches of pansies. So call your mother, okay? But also, put your arms around great writing about mothers. Here are a few of my favorite fictional moms, grandmoms, aunties, goddesses, and sisters.

Not technically human, but a mother of a mother anyway is Aunt Beast of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. She is a warm, soft, fragrant octopus nurse creature, who helps get Meg back on her feet.

Mrs. Murray, also of A Wrinkle in Time is a single mom raising four kids, making stew over a bunsen burner, and eating liverwurst sandwiches late at night with her savant son Charles Wallace, whom nobody else understands. This could be a tableau of pathos, but Mrs. Murray is capable, unflappable – and a gorgeous redhead. I wanted to be all of these things too.

Angela of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. Nobody does tragic hard-working motherhood like the Irish. You just want to reach into the book, and kiss Angela’s dear worn hands, and save them all. A favorite genius-mom passage is when Angela instructs her children to pretend upstairs is “Italy,” and they pretend to feel warm. It’s a punch in the stomach.

Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter deserves an “A” for Awesome mom, no joke. She really is awesome. Pearl, her daughter, is a precocious little shit – I think now she’d be medicated for ADD and labeled as oppositional-defiant – but Hester is a model of patience, and affection. If it takes a village, in this case Hester is a village of one.

An unawesome mom, and a scary mother-daughter story is Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina. But it is great writing about motherhood and the terrible choices it can present. Anney chooses to stay with an abusive husband. There is a scene with a dirt road, an old-model car, and a left-behind child. I tell you, you’ll clutch your children to your bosom, no matter what little shits they’ve been.

D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths, people are really into fecund Ceres, and hottie Aphrodite, but jealous, jealous Hera, Zeus’s wife I’ve always preferred her. She seems real.

Sissy, Francie’s aunt in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, she’s earthy, funny, she works in a condom factory. She’s almost Falstaffian. And speaking of Shakespeare, the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet. She’s more Juliet’s mom than Juliet’s mom is.

The Sweet Potato Queens Book of Love. This is hyper, pneumatic motherhood and womanhood and it’s hilarious. We’re all performing in drag to various degrees all the time anyway especially moms, it’s the hard work, maybe the hardest work, so why not have a little parade with it?