There was a time when the concept of motherhood might conjure saccharine images of June Cleaver vacuuming the living room in a perfectly pressed dress, and Mother’s Day meant greeting cards full of lace-trimmed platitudes about maternal selflessness. But here and now, in 2021, we’ve learned that nothing about motherhood is quite so simple. We know that even the strongest bonds of love can be tested, and some decisions can’t be undone. (And no one dresses up to clean anymore.) Here are six books that take on mothers — and daughters — in all their glorious complexity.
BEWILDERED BY ALL THIS BROKEN SKY (2021) By Anna Scotti, Lightscatter Press, 95 pages, $19
Imagine dangling your feet in a cold stream after a strenuous hike in the sun. You’re relaxed and happy, but the day is clouded by loss because it’s the anniversary of something terrible you suffered long ago. As you sigh into a light breeze, you have a long-awaited insight into your past experience.
That scenario approximates the physical and mental space of Bewildered by All This Broken Sky, Anna Scotti’s debut collection of poems. “How odd, to find myself the villain, and never know until this moment. I’ll admit I was a barefoot slattern of a mother; I’ll admit I should have kept that fat hand tucked tight within my own,” she writes in “Now That I Have Known Loss,” one of the book’s many prose poems.
Scotti’s approach is sweet yet dark, accessible yet achingly strange. She gets at motherhood’s complexities, like how you can never truly know your children, even as you know them better than anyone else ever will. And she elucidates the particular love that parents know and that other adults cannot. But instead of shutting such readers out or preaching about parenthood as a higher calling, she presents it as a sad and lovely curse you take on willingly.
“Last night you came to me, barefoot,/nightgown damp and twisted with sleep,/and said you’d lost a thing with four rooms/and no doors,” she writes in “Feathers of Gold,” about a child’s nightmare. “That’s easy, I said. Your heart.”
Read an excerpt: waywiser-press.com/anna-scotti
CROOKED HALLELUJAH (2020) By Kelli Jo Ford, Grove Press, 304 pages, $26
Kelli Jo Ford gives voice to three generations of Cherokee women in this spare and affecting novel-
in-stories. The first story, “Book of the Generations,” opens in 1974, on the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Fifteen-year-old Justine lives with her mother, Lula, and her grandmother, who share a room. Her mother belongs to a strict, almost cultlike church, and prays at the drop of a hat — such as when Justine announces she’s found her wayward father, who’s remarried and wants to take her to Six Flags.
“ ‘I’ll talk to Pastor about it,’ Lula said, finally.” Ford writes. “She pushed herself out of the swing and walked inside. … [Justine] pushed past the screen door and went to her mother’s room, where she could hear Lula already in prayer. One of Lula’s drawings of a Plains Indian’s teepee was tacked to the closed door. Justine knew that on the other side of the teepee, her mother knelt, as she did in church. Instead of a wooden pew or an altar, Lula’s face was buried in her twin bed, if she had made it that far.”
Crooked Hallelujah hinges on moments of darkness and danger, and the hard religious dogma can feel apocalyptic, heightened in the context of Ford’s quietly measured prose. There’s a smallness to the worlds she creates, one that hones in on the intimacy of the relationships between the women. Everyone wants to be a better daughter, and everyone is put to the test by motherhood.
DEAR IJEAWELE, OR A FEMINIST MANIFESTO IN FIFTEEN SUGGESTIONS (2017) By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Knopf, 80 pages, $15
Feminism is the belief that women and men are equal. As a social justice movement in the United States, it’s been around since the 1960s, and it’s responsible for certain basic assumptions most of us now share — such as that women should be allowed to go to college and have their own credit cards. Several generations have absorbed the tenets of feminism through cultural osmosis, with varying degrees of success. But, for anyone looking to raise kids with an explicitly feminist worldview, critically acclaimed novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote a quick manifesto/step-by-step guide. Originally written as a letter to a childhood friend who’d requested her advice, Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions retains its initial epistolary structure. In a voice full of wisdom and wit, Adichie addresses her friend directly and references her friend’s baby and husband. The context is their life in Nigeria. But her words are applicable to women everywhere:
Don’t tell her to do something, or not do something, just because she’s a girl. Don’t treat marriage as a prize to be won. Don’t congratulate your husband for changing the baby’s diaper, and don’t criticize how he does it, either. Teach her how language speaks to power.
Adichie wants her friend’s daughter to grow up full of opinions, to be able to stand up for herself without worrying about being polite, and to be herself without regard for being “likable.” These aren’t small tasks to ask of mothers or daughters. But they are laudable goals for everyone.
THE GUILD OF THE INFANT SAVIOUR: AN ADOPTED CHILD’S MEMORY BOOK (May 21, 2021) By Megan Culhane Galbraith, Mad Creek Books, 288 pages, $21.95
Megan Culhane Galbraith had three mothers in the first few months of her life: the woman who gave birth to her, then a foster mother, and, finally, the woman who adopted and raised her. In The Guild of the Infant Saviour, she asks how being passed around in such a way has affected her. The title refers to the New York City home for unwed mothers at which she was born. Part of the book explores her search for and relationship with her birth mother, as well as her life with her adoptive mother. But Galbraith pushes beyond personal experience to ask larger questions about what’s called the “primal wound” of being separated from one’s birth mother in this inventive collection of essays that grafts history, social commentary, and memoir with visual art.
In one standout essay, “Hold Me Like a Baby,” Galbraith writes about the Cornell University Domestic Economics, or “Domecon,” project. From 1919 until 1969, rotating shifts of female students took care of orphaned infants, known as “practice babies,” during the first year of their lives. Throughout the essay, archival photographs of the practice babies appear with similar images that Galbraith reconstructed using plastic dolls.
There is heartbreak in the intimate admissions that Galbraith intersperses into rather terse prose. “Since I became aware of the Domecon babies, I’ve wanted to seek them out, talk to them, but most importantly I wanted to hold them,” she writes. “Being held tight is what I desire most. Being held tight also terrifies me.”
Read an excerpt: severancemag.com/the-guild-of-the-infant-saviour
LITTLE GODS (2020) By Meng Jin, Custom House, 288 pages, $27.99
One of the ways writers invite us to see their characters clearly is by describing them through others’ eyes. In this way, we learn about the person being observed as well as the observer. In her debut novel, Meng Jin gives us an immigrant story of Su Lan, a Chinese physicist. And it’s based entirely on other characters’ insights. This rotating viewpoint begins with the delivery nurse in a Beijing hospital, where Su Lan has a baby. But, soon, we are in the heads of Su Lan’s friend, Zhu Wen, her daughter, Liya, and Liya’s father, who she doesn’t know. Su Lan didn’t want children. How can she have a child who might grow to feel about her the way she feels about her own mother?
Little Gods is a story of identity, both within and outside of one’s culture of origin, and of the sacrifices we tell ourselves we are making for others but are self-inflicted wounds.
“Su Lan is always running from something,” Gabino Iglesias writes in a review for NPR. “She moves away from her family, runs away from men, leaves China for the U.S., and abandons a few Ph.D. programs. With each move, a small piece of her personality comes to light. She is a nonconformist looking for a future as much as she’s looking to distance herself from the past.”
RED AT THE BONE (2019) By Jacqueline Woodson, Riverhead Books, 208 pages, $26
National Book Award winner Jacqueline Woodson brings her prowess with young-adult fiction to bear for adults in Red at the Bone, an intergenerational novel that moves backward and forward from a teenage pregnancy in the 1980s. Two Black families from different social classes are brought together when 15-year-old Iris decides to keep the baby. The father, Aubrey, settles happily into parenthood, but Iris soon realizes she wants something else out of life. She goes away to college, leaving little Melody at her parents’ house with Aubrey, whom she doesn’t love.
The narrative point of view shifts quickly from chapter to chapter, in prose that captures each character’s voice and perspective. Woodson’s lauded ability to engage younger readers deepens here with might and beauty as she brings to life the long experience of Iris and Aubrey’s parents’ generation. But her strength with teen voices kicks off the novel, with Melody on her 16th birthday. Woodson dives straight into the tension between daughter and mother, with an argument as they get ready for the family party. Melody says Iris regrets having her. Iris insists it’s
In a moment of quiet, Melody thinks, “Maybe all over the world there were daughters who knew their mothers as young girls and old women, inside and out, deep. I wasn’t one of them. Even when I was a baby, my memory of her is being only halfway here.”