I’m always looking for books about dead fathers, but in June I start looking harder. Father’s Day can be an awkward time. There are a solid number of people in my life (my students, my friends) who have an iffy relationship with a day celebrating dads. Adding to the complication is my own dead father, who died when I was twelve. I’m thirty-one now, and I keep waiting for Father’s Day to become less painful. The hurt changes, but it never goes away. One not-so-surprising place I’ve found solace is the wonderful world of books.
I’m particularly drawn to books about daughters who lose their dads as teenagers. I didn’t mourn in a very productive way when I was young, and reading about girls as they are processing this very specific kind of pain draws me. Sometimes it’s healing, and sometimes just experiencing the hurt second hand is cathartic. Having a dead father can feel like a landmine- the pain isn’t something you can be honest about in polite conversation, American culture is full of traditions that require a father, and if you were lucky enough to have a good relationship, you plain miss your dad. It hits you when you don’t expect it. The magic of going through it with someone else, of being privy to the inner monologue of someone who is just as confused and hurt as you have been, is a relief. These books about dead fathers all captured that magic for me, in one way or another. Descriptions are from Goodreads, gushing is done by me.
Kissing in America by Margot Rabb
In the two years since her father died, sixteen-year-old Eva has found comfort in reading romance novels—118 of them, to be exact—to dull the pain of her loss that’s still so present. Her romantic fantasies become a reality when she meets Will, who seems to truly understand Eva’s grief. Unfortunately, after Eva falls head-over-heels for him, he picks up and moves to California without any warning. Not wanting to lose the only person who has been able to pull her out of sadness—and, perhaps, her shot at real love—Eva and her best friend, Annie, concoct a plan to travel to the west coast to see Will again. As they road trip across America, Eva and Annie confront the complex truth about love.
I picked up Kissing in America because it looked like a sweet YA romp- romance novels, road trips, smooches. I did not expect it to be a hardcore embrace of mother/daughter relationships, the complication of best friends, and the selfishness and aching of grief. It is a damn masterpiece where romance takes a back seat to the preciousness of female companionship. It’s also one of the most accurate descriptions of grief I’ve ever read- Eva’s pain is as real as her inability to realize how it spreads to others. I was touched by the poems scattered through the narrative, by the mother/daughter confessionals, and by the matriarchal ending that left me beaming with tears drying on my cheeks.
Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero
Gabi Hernandez chronicles her last year in high school in her diary: college applications, Cindy’s pregnancy, Sebastian’s coming out, the cute boys, her father’s meth habit, and the food she craves. And best of all, the poetry that helps forge her identity.
Gabi became one of my favorite characters almost instantly- the only girl I’ve ever considered a superhero without a lick of fantasy on the page. With so much to choose from, I still return to this book often for the heartbreaking explosion of grief she experiences when she loses her father mid-way through the book. The immediate reaction of feeling like nothing else- not friends or family or stupid things like school- will ever matter again. The awkwardness of the first day back to regular life after the whirlwind of funeral planning that protects you from actually processing what happened. The pang that colors everything that happens afterwards, for all time- he missed this. Gabi’s grief does not define her, but it’s present.
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel
In this graphic memoir, Alison Bechdel charts her fraught relationship with her late father.
Distant and exacting, Bruce Bechdel was an English teacher and director of the town funeral home, which Alison and her family referred to as the Fun Home. It was not until college that Alison, who had recently come out as a lesbian, discovered that her father was also gay. A few weeks after this revelation, he was dead, leaving a legacy of mystery for his daughter to resolve.
A completely different kind of mourning experience, this graphic novel memoir details a difficult father/daughter relationship and a sudden death that requires a good amount of sleuthing on the part of the daughter left behind. I appreciate how Bechdel (mainly due to the strained relationship with her dad) highlights the other facets of life after death that other novels tend to skip- the inappropriate laughter that will sometimes bubble up, the selfishness that flits through you, the detachment of seeing a body that was once a part of your family. Bechdel also does an amazing job of building a family story by touching on sections of their lives from all different points in time, holding the entire thing together with her strong narrative voice. This book helped my ground my grief and wonder about the person who was gone.
For younger kids, check out our post on children’s books about death and loss.