Culture Trips

Top 10 books about children fending for themselves | Fiction

Over the past few years, I’ve been preoccupied with stories of children fending for themselves, raising each other, embodying cultural and familial values when the adults in their lives cannot. It is there in the Greek myths: the child Iphigenia offering herself as a sacrifice in the face of her father and a mob baying for her blood, or Antigone covering her brother’s body with dust, enacting the burial rituals demanded by the gods when those around her are blinded by revenge or fear. It persists in contemporary stories of children’s resistance, survival and empathy in the midst of addiction, abuse, war. These children, I realise, are constructs, symbols of what we have sacrificed, our effort to compensate for what we lost or are in the process of losing.

At the start of my novel, A Crooked Tree, the 15-year-old narrator’s younger sister is put out of the car on a dark road. The other children look back and know that something terrible will happen; when it does, they will try to shoulder the burden alone. I found myself returning to this idea, the solidarity of youth, how children shield adults and each other without fully grasping the external forces threatening them.

In the following 10 books the dramatic force of the children portrayed is not their weakness but their strength, their ability to resist and sometimes to forgive.

1. Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart
Amid the council flats and slag heaps of 1980s Glasgow, when “young men who were promised the working trades of their fathers had no future now”, Shuggie Bain watches his alcoholic mother’s tragic trajectory. He tries to hold them together, following behind and “stopping now and then to gather up the things that fell from the pocket of her matted mink coat”. Unsentimental and unflinching, the novel’s heart is Shuggie’s love and empathy. “Every day with the makeup on and her hair done, she climbed out of her grave and held her head high.”

children play on a Glasgow street.
Unsentimental … children play on a Glasgow street. Photograph: Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy

2. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Thirteen-year-old Jojo, three-year-old sister Kayla and addicted mother Leonie take a road trip to collect their father from prison. Ward eschews the epic and redemptive possibilities we associate with road narratives as Leonie takes a diversion to pick up a package of crystal meth and Jojo tends to a feverish Kayla. Watching Jojo hold Kayla, how she “sticks to him, sure as a burr”, Leonie says: “I stand there watching my children comfort each other. My hands itch wanting to do something. I could reach out and touch them, but I don’t.”

3. Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethewey
In Trethewey’s devastating account of her mother’s murder in 1985, her child self at age 10 bears a crushing responsibility. “You are in the fifth grade the first time you hear your mother being beaten.” She already feels “the need to right an unrightable wrong to which I had become witness”. The adult world fails her. She tells a teacher, who dismisses it as just the way things are between married people. Trethewey’s memoir gives her mother voice, puts her story back together, ensuring that her life and death are “made meaningful rather than merely senseless”.

4. Milkman by Anna Burns
Burns captures the absurdity of childhood in the midst of armed conflict. The unnamed narrator defies expectations because she’s not interested in babies or bombs, but books. “Longest friend” advises against her “deviant” behaviour of walking while reading. “Are you saying it’s okay to go around with Semtex but not okay for me to read Jane Eyre in public?” The narrator catches the unwanted predatory attention of a paramilitary called Milkman. “I came to understand how much I’d been closed down, how much I’d been thwarted into a carefully constructed nothingness by that man,” she says, “by the community, by the very mental atmosphere, that minutiae of invasion”.

Rachel Kushner
Rachel Kushner

5. The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner
The sense of being crushed into a “carefully constructed nothingness” is painfully realised in Kushner’s blistering indictment of mass incarceration in America. Romy Hall is serving two consecutive life sentences. Her largely parentless San Francisco childhood with a pack of other rootless kids fending for themselves is captured in flashbacks. The city’s beauty “is invisible to those who had to grow up there”, Romy says. Her childhood city is “the bad feeling of doing cocaine with strangers in a motel in Colma … someone overdosing in a bedroom in the white people projects on the Great Highway”.

6. Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore
Set in the oilfields of west Texas, Valentine opens with the horrific rape of a 14-year-old Mexican girl, a crime dividing the town as the community rallies around the white rapist rather than his child victim. The only “I” of the novel’s multiple voices is Mary Rose, the young mother who saved the girl and insists on testifying even when she is terrorised by the rapists’ supporters and abandoned by her husband. “Mercy is hard in a place like this,” she says but we repeatedly see it, especially in 10-year-old Debra Ann, abandoned by her mother but busy raising herself and saving others.

7. My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
“We were oddities, our family, even in that tiny rural town of Amgash,” says Lucy, reminiscing about her childhood during which her family lived in a garage until she was 11. They were set apart not just because they were poor but by an emotional poverty with parents unable to express affection and who routinely neglected and humiliated the children. They are locked in the truck while the parents work. Her brother is humiliated by the father on the town’s main street. Despite this difficult and lonely childhood, shadowed by ill-treatment and the suggestion of abuse, years later when she is sick on her hospital bed: “It was the sound of my mother’s voice I most wanted.”

8. Foster by Claire Keegan
At the start of this novella, an unnamed girl is taken from her home on a County Wexford farm to live with “her mother’s people” for the summer, relatives she has never met. The girls’ home life is captured through small glimpses, the father’s casual lies and an excruciating moment when he is offered rhubarb by the woman as a parting gift but drops a few pieces and waits for the woman to pick them up. We realise the girl has always had to fend for herself and is unused to the soft hands of care she receives from these surrogate parents. At first, she tries to protect herself from it, “so I won’t have to feel this”.

9. The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld
“I was ten and stopped taking off my coat,” says Jas, one of many compulsive behaviours following the death of her eldest brother Matthies in a skating accident. Afraid to drop her guard over her remaining family, she “follow[s] them about all day so that they can’t suddenly die and disappear.” We hear her wisdom as she tries to make sense of her family’s grief and her own behaviours. Addressing her captive toads, she says one day they’ll all go back to the lake and float together. “I’ll dare to take off my coat. Even though it will feel uncomfortable for a while … discomfort is good. In discomfort we are real.”

10. I’m Not Scared by Niccolò Ammaniti
Nine-year-old Michele makes a gruesome discovery while out playing near an abandoned house: a living child, Filipo, buried in a deep hole. Are you a child? Michele asks him. It is 1978 in a southern Italian village where the desperate residents have colluded in the child’s abduction. While the adults lose moral track deciding the child must die, Michele adheres to the heroic code of stories and attempts to save the boy. Ammaniti’s powerful first-person narration captures Michele’s innocence as he tries to fill the gaps and make sense of the fallen adult world.

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