Grandparents: The Unsung Heroes of LiteraturePhoto of Thomas Horn & Max von Sydow in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close Books Features
Grandparents never get to be glamorous. They’re often a book’s supporting cast members; sometimes they’re supporting the supporting cast members. They rarely hang around past the second act, all but forgotten by a story’s finale.
But the grandparent character is crucial. Without his grandfather, precocious nine-year-old Oskar from Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close would have been unable to unlock barriers built into NYC to block entry to unaccompanied minors. Not only this, these two characters, separated by decades, are partners in a spiritual sense. Together, they find compatible closure for the tragedy that sets off the plot of Jonathan Safran Foer’s life-affirming-yet-utterly-tear-jerking novel.
Here’s the thing: When Joseph Campbell laid out the several key steps of the “Hero’s Journey,” the first handful included situating said hero in her “ordinary world…,” where you likely meet her family and get to know her predicaments. That includes introductions to a grandparent-like figure, someone above the young protagonist’s parents yet typically less stern or strict. Maybe a little quirky, maybe a little crazy…
Grandparents, in real life as in literature, have earned a longer leash from their years that forgives them a bit of privileged mischief. They may undermine the ostensible authority of the parent and pull the protagonist aside for a private second opinion. So, back to Campbell’s steps, it’s vital for any hero, before they set off on their exciting or challenging journey, to meet with their Mentor. I often read that as: grand-character! The oracle of the family.
Found in Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things or Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, grand-characters, when done right, aren’t framed with patronizing veneration. They’re shaded in polychromatic hues, making them more of a provocateur, a wild card in the orderly game of house for which the parents a generation below them are attempting to rewrite the rules. The best literary grandparents span the arc of mystic, prophet, kook, soothsayer, grouch and guide.
We begin with novels where grandmothers flat-out save the day. Old Mrs. Hempstock, from Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, forces nightmarish monster-birds from the netherworld back from whence they came with her potent tough talk! She’s a badass (and, essentially, a sorceress), but she still emits the very essence of “grandmotherliness” incarnate. She’s also emblematic of the wiser, yet waning side of the pagan archetype of “the Triple Godesses.” Old Mrs. Hempstock is depicted as a crone in this analogy, but I’ll tell you what, I never felt safer on this novel’s horror/fantasy trip than when we were inside Old Mrs. Hempstock’s house.
The Grandma in Roald Dahl’s The Witches, meanwhile, is an octogenarian Norwegian who smokes cigars and tells great stories…typically concerning the frightening exploits of the eponymous villains. Her stubbornness to quit smoking, against her doctor’s orders, demonstrates that earned orneriness of archetypal grandparents. She’s also looser with her restrictions upon our protagonist, letting him wander around in the hotel in which they’re staying and play with his pet mice. The kid’s an orphan, so we’d never know how constricting his parents may or may not have been, but it’s intriguing to get the greenlight for a little adventuring from your grandma who, by the way, happens to be a former witch hunter!
We view both stories through very young eyes, so to see Dahl’s character fall ill or to picture Gaiman’s character with spider webs for hair manifests unconscious meditations on mortality. They are old, thus they are precious. Our ears should be wide open for their scenes of dialogue, because if the protagonist’s youth can be represented as a briefly static position at a new fork in the road, then these grandparents have the map. Just don’t expect them to hold your hand through the whole thing…
Marvelous and Miserable Grands
While Oscar and Yunior are memorable characters from Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, hope-restoring charm floods the narrative when La Inca appear on the page. La Inca is actually the aunt of Oscar’s mother, making her the great-aunt of the titular character, but the familial lines blur for this Domican clan. La Inca rescued Oscar’s mother from a wretched adoptive family and brought her to live in the Dominican Republic, where they run a bakery together. This restorative time period, facilitated by the tender (if sometimes tough) care of La Inca, is fittingly referred to as “the beautiful days.” La Inca may even possess magical powers, as her profuse prayers for the safe return of her daughter after a kidnapping are more or less answered. She’s a calming, curing foil to her otherwise tense and weary daughter.
Within Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, we get glimpses of actual Detroit history spanning the 1920s to the 1960s through the eyes of an emigrated Greek family. Cal, the main character, has some devastatingly bittersweet thoughts to share on growing up in the ‘60s as a hermaphrodite. But it’s Desdemona, Cal’s paternal grandmother, who prominently illuminates Cal’s journey of self-discovery. Desdemona’s own considerably traumatic youth haunts her, and there’s a commiseration convened between the young Cal and the aging Desdemona. Even though Desdemona isn’t a soft, loving, cookie-baking grandmother, her unique path through life, as it is surveyed by Cal, teaches about the torturous weight of secrets and the very real potential for personal rebirth.
And then there are grandparents that make you shake your head. Baby Kochamma from Roy’s The God of Small Things is a hornet of an old maid, bitter and often verbally biting at the two main characters. Her reason for her rapacious disregard for others’ feelings (particularly the sensitivities of our two protagonists as children), is never fully elucidated, yet she sets an example for the main characters as they come of age. This behavior, as our veritable lead character, Rahel, observes, is as though her great-aunt were “living her life backwards.” Toss in the occasionally-dubious behavior of other immature grumps, like Grandpa Joe from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and these grand-characters, while not positive influences, at least teach the “how not to be…” lesson to younger readers.
Dawn and Sunset
In short, grandparents are more than the comic relief or the eccentric nags. Our youngest protagonists are eager for the future, while their grandparents are gazing backward and ready to sacrifice for the still-vulnerable generation to come. Novelist Elizabeth Goudge explains, “The very old and the very young have something in common that makes it right that they should be left alone together. Dawn and sunset see stars shining in a blue sky; but morning and midday and afternoon do not, poor things.”