If Burke Denby had not been given all the frosted cakes and toy shotguns he wanted at the age of ten, it might not have been so difficult to convince him at the age of twenty that he did not want to marry Helen Barnet.
That opening sentence of The Road to Understanding made me hopeful that the novel was going to be better than the pabulum I expect from Eleanor H. Porter.
I was disappointed.
The Road to Understanding by Eleanor H. Porter
Mary Greene Blumenschein, Illus., Houghton Mifflin, 1917. 373 pp. 1917 bestseller #4. Project Gutenberg eBook #35093. My grade: B-.
Burke Denby is rich and spoiled; Helen Barnet is poor and spoiled.
Their fairy tale romance turns sour: Neither has life skills, self-control, or experience considering anyone’s perspective but their own.
Other than giving Burke an entry-level job in his business, John Denby does not help the newlyweds.
The birth of their daughter adds to the strain.
John Denby steps in with an offer of separate vacations for the pair at his expense: Burke to come with him to Alaska, Helen to take the baby and go visit in her hometown.
Helen and baby Betty disappear without a trace.
Burke never sees either again until Betty is a grown woman.
After establishing the personalities and conflict, Porter doesn’t let them develop as their natures and situations suggest. She has the spoiled Burke happily accepted as a regular guy by the men at his father’s plant, and Helen learn to manage servants so she need not have to cook for her family.
The book ends with a happy family reunion as believable as a zombie Santa Claus.
Fathers who try to give their children all the advantages are two-a-penny in fiction. What makes them interesting is that they don’t all use the same strategies. Nor do they all work from the same base of moral and emotional strength.
In Howard Spring’s My Son, My Son, a twentieth-century father spoils his son to destruction just as King David did his beloved son Absolom centuries before. A subplot shows the opposite approach of training a son to be tough may not lead to a happy outcome either.
Lest you think spoiling sons is just a western habit, Pearl S. Buck in The Good Earth shows a Chinese peasant spoiling his sons. Just in case you miss the destructive nature of that indulgence, she makes it clear in Sons.
Penny Baxter in The Yearling yearns to give his son every advantage, but his family is too poor. When Penny gives in to Jody’s plea for a pet, the growing fawn’s destructiveness requires both father and son to toughen up.
Johnny Nolan isn’t tough enough to take care of his kids’ physical needs, but he cares for them emotionally in Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Johnny’s arranging years in advance for his daughter to have flowers for her high school graduation is one of the sweetest tokens of a father’s love in literature.
Some of the most interesting father figures in vintage novels are men who acted as father to children who were not their own. The man who brings up the orphaned Barbara Worth, who affords him respect but no love in Harold Bell Wright’s novel The Winning of Barbara Worth, is an extraordinary man. So is the crotchety grandfather in The Portygee. Saddled with care of a grandson, the old man has to learn to turn their mutual dismay into a relationship of mutual respect and caring. (Grandma helps a lot.)
East of Edenby John Steinbeck is a contemporary retelling of the Cain and Abel story. A father raising two boys whose mother has deserted them, seems to have a knack for saying and doing the wrong thing, setting one son against the other. The novel weighs the roles played by genetics, nurture, and personal choice in determining what a child will become.
Enjoy and evaluate these fathers in vintage novels.