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Mothers and The Bean Trees

May 9, 2015

In honor of mother’s day, I’ve been seeing lists of “memorable mothers” in various kinds of fiction. That’s usually the term used, “memorable.” Because it’s hard to make a list of good mothers in literature.

There are some good reasons for that, especially in children’s literature, where the presence of a good mother would prohibit the children from going on the adventure. But when I started thinking about mothers that I considered, even briefly, as role models…there aren’t that many.

On the other side of the coin, there are a good many mothers memorable because we’re not to emulate them. The impetuous and possibly incestuous Gertrude in Hamlet. The superbly silly Mrs. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. My own personal category of mothers to avoid emulating also features the clueless platitude-spouting Mrs. Hopewell in Flannery O’Connor’s story “Good Country People” and Rhoda Manning’s ineffectual mother in Ellen Gilchrist’s “1957, A Romance.”

Some mothers are memorable mostly because of how fiercely they fight to protect their offspring. From Molly Weasley’s “not my daughter, you bitch!” to “June’s” agonizing memories of losing her daughter to the state of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale. Christianna Wheeler’s attempts to keep her quintuplets alive in Bobbie Ann Mason’s Feather Crowns. Kate Redding’s attempts to keep it all together with a family and a job in Allison Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does It.

I could only think of six fictional mothers I thought of as good role models before I had children of my own, two of them from the same novel:
Taylor and Lou Ann in The Bean Trees, Barbara Kingsolver
Pearl Tull in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Anne Tyler
Kate Murray in A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle
Marmee in Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
Ma in the Little House books, Laura Ingalls Wilder
None of these mothers are perfect people. “Ma” and “Marmee” have little identity of their own, as I recall, but function mainly as role models and sounding boards for their daughters. Kate Murray has a little more personality, as she has taught her children well, but her role in the story is confined to cooking over her Bunsen burner and waiting for the children to rescue her husband. Pearl Tull has many flaws as a mother, but she devotes herself to the task of raising her children thoughtfully and almost exclusively.

When I thought about Taylor and Lou Ann, I found that I had to reread Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees, because I don’t remember reading it after I had kids of my own. My friend Carol and I have quoted Lou Ann for years about “the only safe way to eat potato salad was to stick your head in the refrigerator.” Lou Ann became, for us, a way of laughing at our own anxious tendencies as mothers. She functions that way for Taylor, too, in the novel:
“For Lou Ann, life itself was a life-threatening enterprise. Nothing on earth was truly harmless….she saved newspaper stories of every imaginable type of freak disaster. Unsuspecting diners in a restaurant decapitated by a falling ceiling fan. Babies fallen head-first into the beer cooler and drowned in melted ice while the family played Frisbee. A housewife and mother of seven stepping out of a Wick’N’Candle store, only to be shot through the heart by a misfired high-pressure nail gun at a construction site across the street. To Lou Ann’s way of thinking, this proved not only that ice chests and construction sites were dangerous, but also Wick’N’Candle stores and Frisbees.”
Later in their friendship, though Taylor tells Lou Ann that her worrying makes her a good mother:
“The flip side of worrying too much is just not caring….Dwayne Ray will always know that, no matter what, you’re never going to neglect him. You’ll never just sit around and let him dehydrate, or grow up without a personality, or anything like that….If anything, Lou Ann, you’re just too good of a mother.”

It takes Taylor the lessons learned from her own mother, the childcare strategies she learns from Mattie, Sandi, Lou Ann, and Virgie and Edna, and the example of the bravery of Esperanza to be able to be a good mother to her adopted little girl, Turtle. When she tells Lou Ann, at one point, that she’s “just not up to the job,” Lou Ann replies “well, don’t feel like the Lone Ranger….Nobody is.”

At the end of the novel, Lou Ann says to Taylor that she’s been thinking “about how your kids aren’t really yours, they’re just these people that you try to keep an eye on, and hope you’ll all grow up someday to like each other and still be in one piece.” Maybe one of the things she’s saying is that if you raise kids right, they’re not particularly aware of how difficult it is. It’s like how a good dancer can make high leg lifts look easy, or a violinist can make a fast passage sound effortless–even inevitable.

Maybe there are so few good mothers in literature because the good ones are not memorable. What you learn from them becomes a part of you and, thus, familiar.

Can you think of another good mother in literature? What makes her “good”?

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17 Comments leave one →
  1. May 9, 2015 9:20 am

    There’s Cordelia Vorkosigan in the Miles Vorkosigan series by Lois McMaster Bujold. She’s awesome. Brave, resourceful and committed to looking after her family.

  2. CSchu permalink
    May 9, 2015 10:18 am

    Yes… having now thought about it a bit… remarkably difficult. But I think you have put your finger on it. The best mothering is kind of invisible. You only see it when it “goes bad.” (Or at least you only see it as a reflection—in the offspring; who they are, how they act, how they treat other people.) I think sometimes the good mothering of surrogate mothers is more visible.

    • May 11, 2015 7:58 am

      The children of surrogate mothers are sometimes more grateful, so they’re reflecting that back, which makes some of what they receive more visible. (Good metaphor!)

  3. May 9, 2015 12:27 pm

    The mother in JoJo Moyes’s One Plus One is a pretty good one. Maybe “bad” mothers make for more interesting literature?

    Man, you’ve really made me want to re-read The Bean Trees! It’s been since high school since I’ve read it. I adore Kingsolver.

    • May 11, 2015 8:00 am

      I’ll have to read One Plus One.
      Bad or absent mothers do help a plot along. I don’t think we have to bend the Tolstoy quotation about good mothers being all alike, though.
      I love The Bean Trees, but hated the sequel.

  4. May 9, 2015 9:29 pm

    I second the mother in One Plus One. And damn, you’re right, that’s just about the only one I can think of. I’m going to write a story about an awesome mother, just so we will have some to choose from. The thing is that good mothering is what we EXPECT — if a character is a good father, we’re touched, but if a character’s a good mother, we’re bored (of course she should be good, she’s a mother, it’s what we require of them). Hm.

    • May 11, 2015 8:01 am

      I look forward to your story about an awesome mother and the way you set up the plot so she’s not exactly what we expect!

  5. Jenny permalink
    May 11, 2015 4:01 pm

    I was just coming to make Jenny’s point about fathers in literature — I think they stand out as Extra Noble even if they are just doing ordinary parenting. But there are good mothers in Michael Chabon’s work (Telegraph Avenue is a good example), and in Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter, Elnora’s mother transforms into a good mother through the Power of Nature. There is an unqualifiedly wonderful mother (Kate Somerville) in the Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett, and a qualifiedly wonderful mother (Sybilla) in there, too.

    There are a few. But I admit not as many as there are terrible or extremely problematic mothers, which I could sit here and name all day long.

    • May 11, 2015 8:30 pm

      You’re right about Telegraph Avenue, although for me they weren’t all that memorable, and you name a few more from books I haven’t read. I’m tickled you think you could name terrible or problematic mothers all day long. I don’t disgree.

      • Jenny permalink
        May 11, 2015 11:51 pm

        Well, Telegraph Avenue was mostly about fathers! Not so great fathers! But the mothers were good, such as they were.

  6. May 11, 2015 8:25 pm

    When I first confronted the brainstorm of ‘name a memorable mother in literature’, I thought of the mother of Carrie by Stephen King, and then the mother of The Glass Castle. I do love Ron Weasley’s mom in HP.
    I need to read The Bean Trees. I seriously missed all these good school books! Why did I only get to read Dickens and Steinbeck. OH! now THERE is a mother: East of Eden. Classic.

    • May 11, 2015 8:34 pm

      Yeah, Carrie’s mom and the Glass Castle mom are pretty bad. The mom in East of Eden starts off as the regular tale of the disposable mom, but then surprise! The story changes.

  7. May 11, 2015 10:01 pm

    I think the “best” mom I can think of at the moment is Mrs. Weasley. But I also think you’re right, the most memorable moms are usually the terrible ones.

    • May 12, 2015 8:15 am

      And one of the reasons we think of Mrs. Weasley as such a good mom is because she’s a surrogate mother (as CSchu observes, above).

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