Grandparents in Literature Can Be Grand…or Not

RacingWhen I read novels, themes for blog posts occur to me. So, after finishing Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain last week, the logical theme would have been to write about memorable dogs in literature. But I already did that two weeks ago, which led to several commenters recommending I read…The Art of Racing in the Rain.

(Those recommenders are credited at the bottom of the comments section.)

Anyway, I tried to think of another theme inspired by Stein’s poignant, inventive, narrated-by-amazing-dog-Enzo novel and came up with…grandparents in literature. The 2008 book’s grandparents Maxwell and Trish are significant secondary characters, and they’re horrible people — especially Maxwell. They’re nasty from the start to son-in-law Denny — the novel’s race-car-driving human star (shown above with Enzo) — and then things escalate as the older couple wrongly/sickeningly seek custody of grandchild Zoe: the daughter of Denny and his cancer-stricken wife Eve, whose parents are Trish and Maxwell. The blatant lying and depravity of the rich, entitled Maxwell reminded me of Trump.

Of course, many other grandparents — whether in fiction or real life — are good people who frequently dote on their grandchildren. (And are happy to again have kinship with kids minus the day-to-day responsibility.) Some examples of admirable grandparents include Penelope Keeling of Rosamunde Pilcher’s The Shell Seekers, Lechuza Blanca (aka “White Owl”) of Isabel Allende’s Zorro, and Claire and Jamie of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. Brief summaries of those four characters:

Despite some major disappointments in life, the independent/young-at-heart/makes-the-best-of-things Penelope treats her not-all-nice extended family well.

The Native-American Lechuza is a spiritual mentor to her part-Spanish grandson Diego de la Vega. “White Owl” helps Diego discover that his guardian animal is a fox (“zorro” in Spanish), and he becomes a masked, sword-wielding vigilante under that name.

Claire is a 20th-century doctor who meets 18th-century Scottish warrior Jamie when she goes back in time, and the two have quite an eclectic grandchildren situation several decades later. Their biological grandkids (Jem and Mandy) are the children of a couple (Claire and Jamie’s daughter Brianna and her husband Roger) who toggle between the 1900s and 1700s. Plus Claire and Jamie are the adopted grandparents/step-grandparents of several other kids (the children of Fergus and Marsali) who always live in the 18th century.

More mixed on the good/not-so-good spectrum are the Greek-immigrant grandparents in Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex. Eleutherios and Desdemona aren’t bad people, but happen to be…brother and sister. (Yes, they married despite being siblings.) This eventually has major genetic consequences for their grandchild Callie, the novel’s main protagonist.

There’s also Sully of the Richard Russo novel Nobody’s Fool. He’s a flawed, not-always-responsible, somewhat-decent guy who develops a cordial relationship with his grandson Will despite the fact that Sully was not an always-there father to Will’s dad Peter.

And how about having a grandmother as strong-minded and eccentric as Frieda Haxby Palmer in Margaret Drabble’s The Witch of Exmoor? Never a dull moment, for better or for worse.

Rebecca and Isaac are also rather quirky grandparents in Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent, which partly fictionalizes the lives of some major and minor Biblical characters. The novel stars Dinah, who’s the granddaughter of Rebecca and Isaac (and daughter of Jacob and Leah).

Some grandparents are middle-aged or not much older, while others are quite advanced in years — meaning the death of grandparents is definitely a thing in many novels. For instance, the two Joad grandparents pass away relatively early in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, but they’re around long enough for us to see how their feisty personalities have been passed on to some extent to the next generations.

Grandparents in literature you’ve found memorable?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — which discusses topics such as my town’s proposed hybrid school model this fall — is here.

55 thoughts on “Grandparents in Literature Can Be Grand…or Not

  1. Stendhal’s “The Life of Henry Brulard”, features a grandfather who often stands on his own gravity and wisdom and even love between the boy Brulard and his profoundly unforgiving and punitive aunt , the boy’s mother, her sister, having died. The grandfather has sympathy, regard and concern to preserve the promise in the boy, and enjoys Henry’s enduring love and respect in ways that are closed to his distant yet dictatorial father.

    But “The Life of Henry Brulard” is most often described, with accuracy, as autobiography of the thinly veiled type. So as sorta-autobio, I cheat, perhaps, to fill the category of our week’s topic.

    So be it. After a few moments of searching for grandparents out of things in my head I have read, I came up with Heidi’s granddad, who was a simple milking man with a heart as big as an Alp, but also, damn it, KatLit’s entry.

    Ah! I just remembered the doll-like, mewling baby born to Catherine Linton the night she died, currently, as I have only got through roughly half of “Wuthering Heights”, relying on the dubious comfort of Ellen Dean’s knee. Hindley Earnshaw is a grandfather thereby, technically if not in spirit, though he is now perpetually in spirits and cannot bestir himself for a visit the Linton household would be loathe to receive. Hoorah! That makes another grandpa for my list.

    Nope, wrong entirely, That makes him a mere drunken uncle. And so, goodnight.

    ….Though the old man Earnshaw might qualify, and he seemed a kindly enough oblivious man who meant well but just happened to bring a young viper home from Liverpool. Nope, not really, except as a grandfather who never saw a grandchild. Once more, goodnight!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, jhNY!

      Henry Brulard sounds like a really memorable character — whether fictional, real, or a combination of both.

      I really should read “Heidi” one of these days. I think my wife has a copy somewhere in the apartment…

      I enjoyed your “Wuthering Heights” was-it-a-grandparent-or-not riffing. Yes, late-night commenting can be interesting when one is tired. 🙂

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  2. This post, Dave, leaves me with nothing to add about grandparents in literature, though it does cause me to miss my own grandparents, all of whom I knew well and the last of whom died when I was about 23. My mother’s parents were Swedish immigrants just before 1900, while my father’s great-grandparents were German immigrants about the time of our Civil War. Very different people, though all Illinois farmers. I can’t tell you how often I wish I could talk with them about what’s happening in the U.S. now, but I’m glad they were spared so much of it. By the way, I’ve finally updated my Amazon author’s page to show all my books plus a link to my blog in advance of publication of my next book (it’s 9/11-related) early in 2021. You can find it at https://www.amazon.com/author/billtammeus.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Bill! Your family has an interesting history. And I totally hear you about missing grandparents and other ancestors. Plus mortality is always a sobering thing to contemplate.

      My four grandparents all came to the U.S. from various Eastern European countries in the roughly 1900-1915 range, as far as I know.

      Yes, distant generations were spared what’s happening now, though they of course lived through other horrors (the Civil War you mentioned, “The Great War” aka WWI, the flu pandemic of just over a century ago, etc.). Of course, they never had a president as cruel and incompetent as the current one, even as some past presidents were pretty bad.

      And that’s an impressive page with your impressive author output. Thanks for the link!

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  3. Although I’ve been thinking about this subject since Sunday, I’ve yet to come up with a single example of any grandparent in fiction that made a huge impression on me, either good or bad, even those in children’s books (other than the grandfather in “Heidi”). I suppose that’s mostly because I had no or very little contact with either sets of my own grandparents. They were all from Minnesota, and by the time my parents moved back there with me, the only ones living were my mother’s mother, who had moved permanently to Florida, and I only had one visit with my father’s father in northern Minnesota. Both of them died shortly after that. My paternal granddad was a lovely man and I’m so sorry that I didn’t have more time with him.

    So, I’ll go off-topic once again. 🙂

    Dave, as you know, I’ve been reading only mysteries/thrillers since the beginning of the year (75 of them!) and they’ve been my main consolation throughout the Covid pandemic period. I’ve decided to go back to reading more non-fiction, something I’ve always enjoyed doing and feel that I’ve learned more from than novels. My tastes have always been eclectic and my interests varied — books about ancient history, the Civil War, art, religion and atheism, nature, animals, medicine, mental health, feminism (women’s lib, as we used to say), even books about books and the writing process. I especially love memoirs/biography and plan to start my new reading program with those. I was inside the library yesterday to pick up my on-hold memoirs: “Educated” by Tara Westover; “Travel Light, Move Fast” by Alexandra Fuller; and “Truth & Beauty” by Ann Patchett. Really looking forward to reading these! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Kat Lit! I can see how not having a huge grandparental element in your own life might affect your experience with grandparents in fiction — i.e., those characters often not making a huge impression on you. Sorry you didn’t have more contact with your real-life grandparents. I had some contact with three grandparents when I was young — one of whom I liked better than the other two. 🙂

      WOW — 75 books this year? Impressive!!! Consolation and distraction indeed during the pandemic. And good luck with your pivot to nonfiction. As we all know, great nonfiction books can be almost as absorbing as great novels.

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  4. Another fun ‘challenge,’ Dave! It’s enjoyable to go back through reading lists back to meet it 🙂 Grandparents figure prominently in the following novels: Gilead and Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, Tinkers by Paul Harding, A Tale tor The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, and The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht. However my favorite book relating to this theme is non-fiction, and which reads like an incredible story, is J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. And I just know there must be several novels out there on this topic, especially within milieus where grandparents have the primary job of raising grandchildren while parents work or are absent. You know, like back in the old days when family was less nuclear and more generationally intact. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Mary Jo!

      Great points about how grandparents become the primary caregivers of grandchildren under some circumstances, and how in “the olden days” there were more three-generation households that included grandparents.

      I appreciate the mentions of those books with major grandparent characters! I forget if we ever discussed this, but I had very different reactions to the two Marilynne Robinson novels you named. I absolutely loved the quirky “Housekeeping” but found “Gilead” mostly boring.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. “Loved the grandparent segue ending your comment!” – hopefully I didn’t build up too much anticipation for this comment that will probably be a bit ho hum.

    Firstly, although it has nothing to do with literature, I’d like to say I miss my grandparents. My grandmother died a few years back but I still think about her every day. My grandfather died earlier this year (on my nan’s birthday if you can believe that!) and I kind of feel orphaned. My parents never really wanted children, and I did them the favour of removing myself from their lives some time back, so with my grandparents no longer here, I feel like I’ve lost the last of my family. But like I said, this has NOTHING to do with literature…

    I’ve thought about this topic over the last few days and thought I had a couple of good examples. Both Philip Carey (Of Human Bondage) and Philip Pirrip (Great Expectations) were orphaned and brought up by… not their grandparents. I couldn’t quite remember which family members took over the parenting, and I was really hoping that at least one of them was raised by their grandparents. I was pretty sure I was wrong about Great Expectations, but it turns out I was wrong about both!

    So I’ll go in an entirely different direction and say George’s Marvellous Medicine. Roald Dahl creates a grandmother who is so loathsome that you can’t help but cheer when George’s ‘medicine’ does some pretty nasty things to her.

    Thanks for your reply to last week’s comment, Dave. I must admit, while I love my e-books, my newest Kindle does feel more device-y than the older models. I hope that you can get back into the library in the near future. I wonder if our reading habits will ever go back to normal? I know I personally have been avoiding plague books like… well, like the plague, and I can’t see me wanting to pick one up any time soon. I look forward to hearing how you go with Eleanor Oliphant. 🙂

    Sue

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, and I forgot to include it in my comment, but I had also thought of Flowers in the Attic. The grandmother in that memorable novel is the embodiment of creepy.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Very sorry you didn’t have a better parental situation, Susan. 😦 (I can say the same for myself.) But so glad you had great, loving grandparents for many years. 🙂 Until you didn’t. 😦

        Yes, as you allude to, some people (fictional or real) are brought up by aunts, uncles, or others rather than their parents or grandparents. Sometimes that works, sometimes that doesn’t.

        I agree that sometimes devices can get too…device-y. Fancier, and with more bells and whistles, than needed. But I guess there’s enough of a market for that.

        Excellent question relating to whether our reading habits will see some permanent changes due to the pandemic. And — ha! — I can understand avoiding plague books like the…

        As for “Flowers in the Attic,” the world doesn’t need creepy grandparents, but there are some…

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  6. A good theme, as I always enjoyed a very close relationship with my grandparents. My grandma is about to turn 94! I think the best recent read I can think of for this is Water for Elephants, where elderly Jacob Jankowski relives his adventurous youth as a very old (and forgotten) man in the nursing home. I really, really loved the ending of that book, which I of course won’t spoil here for anyone who hasn’t read it. Another recent read with a grandmother is “Summer of 69” by Elin Hilderbrand, although I didn’t like her as much. Seemed a bit to WASPy for me, whereas I’m much more partial to the spunky type grandparent, since that’s what my grandma always has been. I also really loved the grandma (great aunt?? Can’t remember now) in the Hate U Give, she always made me laugh.

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  7. Do you know I had to think about this, possibly because grandparents often feature largely in children’s books..oh and fairy tales when you think of Red Riding Hood. I still remember what a crusty old soul Heidi’s grandfather was. Lot of children’s books like that where the aged grandparent had to take on the young, not especially desired grandchild. But coming forward you are right re the Joad grandparents in Wrath–gone but not forgotten. There was also the Pierce pair in Mildred Pierce…right royal unhelpful, finger pointing moans. But yeah, toiling abit here.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Shehanne! Grandparents are definitely quite prominent in many children’s books/stories — including the two you mentioned. If my blog were about kids’ lit, I would have had a very long post this week. 🙂

      I still need to get to some James M. Cain novels! My local library has quite a large and eclectic collection of books, but there was a Cain deficit when I was searching/ordering online for curbside pickup last month. 😦

      Liked by 1 person

      • The famous ones are justly so: “The Postman Always Rings Twice”, “Double Indemnity”, “Mildred Pierce”.

        I am also fond of a lesser novel: “Serenade”– for some reason there’s a scene in a Mexican church in the rain and the dark that comes back to me once in a while. The main character can sing and picks up a guitar and and can play quickly once he tries, and I always thought there was much artistic license afoot concerning the musical prowess angle, but it turns out Cain’s mother was an opera singer who trained her son for a career, until around 20, she informed him he didn’t have the talent to be a success. He did, at least, have the time in, and so knew what he was writing about!

        Hope one finds it way to you soon. I will keep an eye on on the card tables of books in the neighborhood, thinking of you.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I wonder if there was a “Cain Mutiny” at my local library? 🙂 I’d love to read all four James M. Cain novels you mentioned, and I suspect I’ll get to at least one of them this year through a purchase.

          Very interesting to hear about Cain’s early musical background! Many authors certainly did more than writing in their youth (or later), some excelling at the non-writing thing and some not.

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  8. I have been trying to find a Russian example, but couldn’t come up with anything good. But I did think of a great Finnish example, which I may have mentioned before; Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book. A six year-old spends the summer with her grandmother on an island in the Finnish archipelago. This short novel is extremely funny, endearing and wise. Sophia learns a whole lot about life that summer, including to sing songs as badly as her grandmother.

    Liked by 4 people

  9. This may seem obscure, but the first book came to my mind is “A Family Chronicle,” a nineteenth-century novel by Sergei Aksakov. It’s based on his early life, going back to the 1790s, but is written as a realistic novel.. The
    grandfather, and to a lesser extent grandmother, are major characters in the book, so it shows the influence of grandparents on a young child’s mind. Also interesting is the relationship between the patriarchal grandfather and his daughter-in-law, two strong characters who form a bond despite their different backgrounds.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Jean! Sounds like a really interesting book with very significant grandparent elements. I hadn’t heard of “A Family Chronicle” or its author, but I imagine other Russian-literature experts (in addition to yourself) who comment here have.

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  10. Second attempt at posting:

    The first grandparents that come to mind are from George Martin’s ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’, both of dubious moral stature but one with a conscience.

    Tywin Lannister is the patriarch of the Lannister clan, father of incestuous twins Cersei and Jamie and bastard son/dwarf Tyrion. Aside from being a horrible parent he’s also a pretty horrible grandparent. At least he’s consistent. He disowns Tyrion and is ashamed to say that he was his father. He’s always manipulated his other children to enact his plan for supremacy of the Lannister family. They’re wealthy and they think they can buy power and, to a large extent, they can.

    Of his children, Cersei is irredeemably evil. Jamie has a great character arc, beginning the series as a callow, handsome warrior who’d think nothing of tossing Bran Stark from a high window after the boy sees him and Cersei in the act. Later in the series he goes through several trials and evolves into a pretty courageous character, although he’s still drawn by that incestuous pull. Tyrion is also callow and hedonistic but he too evolves his conscience. Of Cersei’s (and Jamie’s, but claimed by King Robert) children, Joffrey is a sadistic little Caligula, Tommen is a well-meaning child but he really never had a chance with Cersei, the same with his sister, Myrcella. I won’t go any further without summarizing a good chunk of the saga.

    Another grandparent is Olenna Tyrell, who is as crafty and cunning as Tywin and largely outwits him in many respects. Her granddaughter, Margery, is also born to a wealthy family and is betrothed to Cersei’s demon son, Joffrey. Margery is manipulative but her plans are always hidden behind a charming, graceful exterior. Her grandmother is not about to have her daughter chained in marriage to a monster, even if he is the King so she takes matters in her own hands. Again I won’t say anything else about what happens next.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, bobess48! Sorry about the posting problem. 😦

      I got a sense of some of the characters you mentioned by reading the first book in the series a couple years ago, but seeing your comment reminds me again how complex, interesting, sordid, etc., that series must be. Complete with memorable grandparents. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  11. Another thought-provoking post, Dave, one that had me thinking about how we view grandparents in our society. When I looked up books that included grandparents, what came up in my search was children’s books that grandparents should read to their grandchildren, which suggests that our society has an expectation that grandparents should somehow transition from active careers into a caretaking role. Which is a great thought, but may be hard for some. So, I’m going off topic a bit here, Dave, as usual. The idea of being “Grand or Not” comes down to how we move from one stage of life to another. As I age, I am cognizant that there is another generation ready to take over from my generation, that we become the supporters rather than the “movers and shakers” – the decision-makers. What is so wonderful about books is that they allow us to reflect upon our actions and see where we “fit” in the “Grand” category. A few years back I read Mary Catherine Bateson’s, Composing a Life. One of her memorable thoughts was: “Of any stopping place in life, it is good to ask whether it will be a good place from which to go on as well as a good place to remain.” I love our conversations.

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