On Mother’s Day, Here Are 2 Novels That Get Babies Right

On Mother’s Day, Here Are 2 Novels That Get Babies Right

Dear readers,

For the past few months I’ve been on a scavenger hunt. Where are the fully realized babies in fiction? I wasn’t after infants who are incidental to the plot; I wanted babies whose babyhood was essential to the story.

I shouldn’t be surprised by this itch. It has been the year of the baby for my loved ones. Blink, and a friend’s little bundle of semi-consciousness has grown to the size of a koala. What’s going on in there, little guy?

Look, babies freak me out. Whenever I’m around them I worry about doing something that will forever alter their lives, like holding a bottle at the wrong angle or making curse words sound cool. But I don’t see them exiting my life any time soon, and this is an irrational, unbiological fear that I’d like to overcome. Enter literary exposure therapy.

My holy grail? A bouncing, gurgling Chekhov’s gun. If a baby appears in the first act, I expect it to start crawling by the last. I’m pleased to share the results of my spelunking: a can-do, women-run novel from Barbara Kingsolver and a deeply weird, overlooked British story that puts a baby’s existence into grotesquely brilliant prose. The children are our future; teach them well and let them lead the way.


Of course Barbara Kingsolver, She Who Treats All Her Characters With Dignity, has a memorable baby in her universe. She unfurls the same expansive humanity across each of her books, including this, her debut.

Meet Taylor Greer, daughter of Pittman County, Ky. More important, she’s the daughter of a single mother who believed Taylor hung the moon and “plugged in all the stars.” Taylor dreams of more for herself than what her small hometown could offer — a life of babies and tobacco farms and not much else. When she has enough saved to buy a ’55 Volkswagen (with no windows, no back seat and no starter, mind you), she heads West.

After a verbal tussle with a cowboy in Oklahoma — a careless pass of a diner ketchup bottle sloshes out a few cents’ worth of coffee from Taylor’s mug, a scene that will be achingly familiar to anyone who’s robbed Peter to pay Paul — a Native woman gives Taylor a young child and disappears. The woman who left Kentucky to avoid motherhood now has a mute little girl she knows nothing about as her charge.

She names her Turtle, on account of how tightly the child clings to her. “I think it would have been easier to separate me from my hair,” she thinks. Appropriately, Turtle is slow to show herself, and for heartbreaking reason.

Taylor’s worldliness dilates quickly once she and Turtle reach Tucson, their eventual home. She has big Erin Brockovich energy, and a sense of humor: Scanning rental listings in the local paper, “I began to suspect that sharing harmonious space with an insightful Virgo might require even greater credentials than being a licensed phlebotomist in the state of Arizona.”

Some of Taylor’s wit and mettle recede as the story aims for a bigger message. There’s a secondary plot involving migrants seeking a sanctuary of their own, just as mother and daughter ease into their adopted city. But that unexpected maternal love is a constant, and it’s a pleasure that Turtle is much more than a foil to Taylor or the catalyst for Taylor’s coming-of-age; she’s a loving and resilient child, and memorable in her own right.

Read if you like: The movie “Mask,” heritage seed catalogs, “9 to 5”
Available from: The library, probably your mom’s bookshelf, a well-stocked motel lobby

Fiction, 1973 (reissued 2023)

What a startling, disorienting book. You read it in a stupor, much as babies go through their earliest days. I’m glad the author wrote it before retreating to an ashram in Maharashtra; I loved it.

We are in Cornwall between world wars. Nestled in a posh cliffside home are the King, the Queen and their little Prince, a mewling infant whom we get to know through his senses.

“The Prince lies in his mother’s lap. He is good. The sun is balmy on his face. The fears of the dark cupboard have shrunk to the size of an old man wrapped in a dark fringed rug.” (Imagine if babies had this sort of language available to them!)

But this is no idyll. The Prince lives for moments with his mother, away from his rigid, starchy nurse, when he is fed “kisses and licks of sugar.” Here comes the melodrama — “the exquisite pain, torn away from this tender sweetness, fingers clutching, body arched, screams of despair. Even a rat would have learned that a broken string of pearls and knocked over teacup meant that next day there would be no love, no sugar. The Prince learns in the end, but a rat would have learned sooner.”

These early ruptures are nauseating to read, however modish such tactics of deprivation and discipline were at the time. And yet they’re essential to the story, which follows the boy to school, the Navy and beyond. Privilege and torture create the firmament of his selfhood. We cannot understand this individual — and his ultimate acts of horror — without having peered down at him from the bars of his crib.

You don’t need to have read Joseph Conrad’s 1900 novel “Lord Jim” to appreciate this book, but it’s a useful referent. (Quickly, in case you’ve lost your seminar notes: “Lord Jim” follows a sailor who makes a cowardly decision at sea, and tries to outrun the consequences; the Book Review called it a “study of a soul.”)

This, too, is an explicit call to judge an ambiguous, passive, coolly voided man, resulting in a soup-to-nuts character study that is less “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” than “Robert Mugabe Has a Migraine.”

Read if you like: voir dire, Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre, pedagogical debates, Mother’s wedding china
Available from: Luckily for us, McNally Editions released this for the first time in the United States last year, so most major book retailers will carry it; otherwise, Anglophiles might be peddling first editions wherever used books are sold

  • Take heed of Alice McDermott’s writing wisdom, conveniently collected in “What About the Baby?

  • Acquaint yourself with some of my favorite children in recent fiction, courtesy of Camille Bordas?

  • Tour a school to send your baby to, run by Donald Barthelme?

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