Five Literary Dads

Actor, writer of Eyes in Front When Running (Breakwater Books), and partner to a dad Willow Kean delves into the literary canon and comes up with five “dads of literature” in advance of Father’s Day. 

Five Literary Dads with Willow Kean. A "Best of the Blog 2023" seal is in the top-right corner.


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I’ll start by saying something about Father’s Day that might be divisive, because hey, it’s 2023 so why not? Dads get a bit of a raw deal on that day compared to moms. My partner Justin and I still laugh about the time our kid came home from daycare a few years ago with a pile of Mother’s Day gifts for me. A hilarious filled-out questionnaire detailing my age, favourite food, and job according to a three-year-old, Jude’s painted and laminated handprint crafted to look like a flower in a pot with a poem written on it, and to finish it all off, a little bouquet of handpicked flowers. The next month when Father’s Day rolled around, Justin got: a heavy stone with the words “You Rock” written on it in black marker.

Maybe there’s something in that. Fathers—the good ones—are meant to be solid, easygoing, and dependable. Sturdy and steadfast. But life is complicated and so are fathers, in real life and in the books we love.

A couple weeks ago Justin and Jude and I went on a little boil up, on a beach filled with smooth flat stones, perfect for sitting. When we were getting ready to eat, I said, “Jude, pick a rock to sit on, there’s a bunch of good ones here.” He promptly went over and sat on his father’s lap. “Daddy’s my rock,” he said. And he settled in to eat his sandwich.

So, maybe that silly gift from daycare made perfect sense after all.

To all the dads, stepdads, grandfathers, brothers, uncles, and all the men in our lives who are our rocks, I wish you the happiest of Father’s Days.

The Absent Father

An absent father can shape a life as much as one who’s present. In Bobbi French’s The Good Women of Safe Harbour, Frances Delaney’s idyllic childhood in rural Newfoundland ends the day her father Patrick is lost at sea. This event sets the course for unprecedented loss that few experience in their lifetime. Yet even while dying from a brain tumour, the happiness Frances eventually finds is tied to her father’s love of traditional music and his respect and love for the open water. Her happiest childhood memory is of the day he taught her to swim in the ocean, and she carries this pocket of joy with her to the end of her days; always connected to the seashore, convinced that if heaven is a place, it must be in the ocean. It may have taken everything from her, but Frances also knows it’s the only thing that can bring her home.

The Father Figure

My son’s school doesn’t acknowledge Father’s or Mother’s Day anymore, out of respect for kids who’ve lost parents, and for families who don’t fit what many still consider to be the “traditional” family mould. Which I get, but part of me thinks it’s a missed learning opportunity to teach kids about father and mother figures. I was pregnant when I read Michael Crummey’s Sweetland, with fathers on my mind for all the obvious reasons. My senses being on hormonal overload at the time, there are scenes from that book still burned into my brain years later. I can still vividly recall the tenderness with which Moses Sweetland cared for his great-nephew Jesse, the fatherless boy of Sweetland’s niece Clara. Sweetland isn’t a man who shows affection in the way some fathers feel comfortable doing today; his affection is practical, useful. When he takes Jesse out to cut wood or snare rabbits, it’s his way of keeping the boy safe and sane in a place they are about to lose. Sweetland’s final act of love for Jesse is one that makes him an unforgettable father figure in recent modern Canadian literature.

The Curmudgeon Dad

You’ve all met one, or maybe you have one. There’s a pretty good chance at least one of your grandfathers was one. And that’s the curmudgeonly father. We find them infuriating, we love to roll our eyes at them, we take glee in regaling friends and other family members with tales of how exasperating they can be. But (dare I say it), as you creep toward middle age…you just might get where they’re coming from. There’s no better example of Curmudgeon Dad than Alfred Lambert in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, a man who’d make the gentle parenting crowd spontaneously burst into flames. But there’s something admirable in Al’s steadfastness, and his sheer will not to give in to the ravages of Parkinson’s Disease, or the ravages of falling off the back of a cruise ship. It’s also worth pointing out that as Alfred falls to what we think will be his untimely end, his thoughts are of reading to his children when they were small, and the smell of their freshly washed hair as they curled into him at bedtime.

Two Dads are Better Than One

This could mean several things depending on the family. Some kids have two dads under the same roof, while some spend their childhoods being ferried between two houses, with a dad in one house and a stepdad in the other. And it’s a beautiful thing to witness when it runs like a well-oiled machine; when a family puts in the hard work so that a kid reaps the benefits of two happy Christmases, two happy birthdays, and two positive male role models in their life. In my debut novel Eyes in Front When Running, Cleo Best starts the book with one dad and ends it with two. Joseph Best, a gentle bear of a man, has been her stepfather since he married her mother Maisie when Cleo was two years old. At the age of thirty-nine, when life-changing circumstances force her to confront her future, Cleo finds her biological father Alexandre in another country, and with him the possibility of something good coming out of all the mistakes she’s made. And of course, I’d love you to read the book to see how she gets there!

The Papa Bear

Fun fact: when you google “Mama Bear”, the first thing that pops up is the description of, “a woman, especially a mother, who is extremely protective of a child or children.” Do a search for “Papa Bear” and you’ll be told that he’s one of the famous bears in the Goldilocks story, or you’ll be led to “The Berenstain Bears” YouTube channel. Just like getting a rock on their special day instead of a bouquet of flowers, it feels to me like dads get a bit shortchanged in this department as well. So, here’s a shoutout to the Papa Bears, who also go to great lengths to protect their children when danger is lurking. And none is more Papa Bear than Mahindan in The Boat People by Sharon Bala. With his six-year-old son Sellian, he makes the perilous journey across the Pacific to try and escape the civil war in Sri Lanka. His dreams for a better life for his little family are delayed as he endures detention, separation from Sellian, and maneuvering the bureaucracy of the Canadian immigration system. But Mahindan hangs on, even when hope is at its bleakest, if only for the chance to give his son a future.

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Willow Kean is an actor and writer originally from Labrador West. She’s co-written several children’s plays that have toured provincially, and her five-woman comedy Supper Club premiered at the LSPU Hall in 2021. She’s been shortlisted for the Cuffer Prize and longlisted for the NLCU Fresh Fish Award, and she won the Percy Janes First Novel Award in 2018. Willow lives in St. John’s with her partner, the filmmaker Justin Simms, and their son, Jude.