Susan Straight

Books about fierce mothers and their children from the novelist’s shelves.

Susan Straight’s newest novel, Between Heaven and Here, is the final in a trilogy set in the tightknit black community in Rio Seco, California, that took her fifteen years to complete. Straight explains: “I started with images of a child I tried to help — one with cigarette burns — and a pregnant woman killed and left in a shopping cart, whose body was first seen by my brother-in-law. These images got me thinking about what makes a good mother, what makes a fierce mother who tries to keep her child alive and unhurt, and what makes a child love his mother no matter what happens? The following are five books about fierce mothers and their children.”

Books by Susan Straight


By Terry McMillan

“This was her first novel, and I saved my paperback for a year so I could read it while in labor with my first child. (Sounds crazy? But reading is the best distraction ever.) Mildred Peacock has five children, lives in a poor Michigan town, and tries to keep herself and them sane and safe, with ensuing heartbreak but also hilarity. People forget how funny and delicate McMillan’s writing can be — these children (Freda, Money, Bootsey, Doll, and Angel) all have great voices. My favorite scene is when Freda is tiny, and Mildred watches over her all night for that one mosquito in a room — baring her own skin to take the bite.”

Ellen Foster

By Kaye Gibbons

“Also a first novel, and a voice no reader can forget. ‘When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy,’ Ellen says. Her father is an abusive alcoholic, her mother dies after taking too many pills, and Ellen’s searing memories of her “real mama” keep her alive while she searches for a new home, where she finally finds security, at least — her ‘new mama cuts on the dishwasher and wa-la.'”

Bastard Out of Carolina

By Dorothy Allison

“There is no language like Allison’s. That’s it. This mother Anney is only fifteen when she gives birth to Bone, her child whose birth certificate lists no father. Bone’s diamond-hard instincts for survival with a terrible Daddy Glen are the only thing keeping her alive. She loves her mother, who is “all butter-grief and hunger.” She loves her aunts — no one writes women like Allison. But Bone is the hard one, who has to make her mother into a different person, in order to save them both. Read this and never forget a child’s skin and bones and brain full of words and strength.”


By Helena Maria Viramontes

“Every year, I teach this novel to first generation students whose mothers are from Mexico, Central America, Iran and Afghanistan, Vietnam and Cambodia and Nigeria. They often recognize the ingenuity and dreamy hope of this mother, who keeps her children’s birth certificates under a plaster figurine she sets up on every makeshift altar in every migrant worker shack where they land. She draws circles in the sand to keep scorpions away, and cleans outdoor firepits with horsetail weeds to cook dinner. Her daughter, Estrella, hates her sometimes, loves her all the time, and fights to become someone else.”

The God of War

By Marisa Silver

“Set in the searing desert near the Salton Sea, this novel features a mother raising two sons in a flimsy trailer decorated with beautiful fabric and shells and objects she finds in the heated sands on journeys with her boys. The world revolves around her, until it doesn’t, for her older son, who thinks he’s done something terrible to his brother. This mother’s way of forging a life for them out of nothing is lyrical and beautifully written.”