While extremely difficult childhoods are an understandable conceit in novels (there’s nothing more boring than a healthy, happy upbringing), some stories are so intense, it’s amazing to imagine the kids involved actually survived to adulthood—if they did, at that. These 10 books detail really crummy childhoods. We’re surprised any of these kids made it out alive.
Edgar in Edgar and Lucy, by Victor Lodato
With a father dead by suicide, a mother emotionally incapable of much more than bare survival, a stern grandmother-in-law whose influence literally haunts him after her passing, and a sort-of voluntary kidnapping, young Edgar—albino and possibly autistic—has one of the roughest childhoods you’ll ever read about. We’d like to imagine Edgar goes on to a stable, happy adulthood, but…we have doubts.
Dolores Haze in Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov
Dolores goes from one terrible parent to another, and is quite possibly the most manipulated child in all of literature. What she goes through, first with a parent willing to ignore the reddest flags in the history of the universe in order to marry an obvious pedophile, and later in the clutches of that very pedophile, would have driven any other person to suicide. Dolores does a bit better than that, but not much.
Zach Goldin in More Than It Hurts You, by Darin Strauss
With a disengaged father, a seriously not-okay mother who suffers from Munchausen’s by Proxy Syndrome, and a local community more concerned with racial issues than the truth of his situation, it’s a wonder young Zach lives through this story. What isn’t a wonder is the therapy bills that kid is going to need: they will be enormous.
Theo Decker in The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
Nearly blown up, adopted by distracted family friends who engage in benign neglect, then claimed by his truly neglectful father and left unsupervised to get hooked on drugs and wander the empty streets of suburban Las Vegas: the fact that Theo Decker lives long enough to tell us his story is pretty surprising.
Jack, Julie, Sue, and Tom in The Cement Garden, by Ian McEwan
McEwan’s debut remains a disturbing black mirror to Party of Five. When the kids’ parents die, they hide their mother’s corpse by encasing it in cement in the basement and try to avoid going into the “system.” To say this does not go well for them is an understatement. To say it’s surprising that all that happens is some sociopathic derangement and enthusiastic incest is also an understatement. And the ending is just ambiguous enough that you can’t be certain they all survive—or that they should.
The Dollanganger Kids in Flowers in the Attic, by V.C. Andrews
Not only is it remarkable the Dollangangers survived being imprisoned in the attic while their mother tried to worm her way back into her father’s will—and slowly forgot they even existed—it’s remarkable they didn’t form a somber suicide pact right before they burned the whole house down, and possibly every other house in the vicinity for good measure. Instead, the older kids once again decided incest was the way to go, which just goes to show you that their coping skills weren’t up to snuff.
Huckleberry Finn in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
Largely unsupervised and often abused both verbally and physically by Old Finn, Huckleberry Finn is a tragic figure, really. And Twain knew it, too, even as he presents Huckleberry’s adventures with a twinkle in his eye. If a real kid had gone on those “adventures” he would be dead before long—probably about halfway through the book.
Harry Potter in The Harry Potter Series, by J.K. Rowling
Kept in a cupboard under the stairs, orphaned Harry is neglected, underfed, and emotionally abused for years. Oh, and the world’s most evil wizard wants him dead. The fact that Harry makes it to adulthood without going insane—or being killed—is the most fantastic part of the story, frankly. Assuming, that is, that the fan theories that the story is just Harry’s psychotic break and revenge fantasy aren’t true.
The Mortmain Kids in I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith
The Mortmains aren’t exactly unhappy, \but let’s put aside the romance and warmth of Smith’s narrative and concentrate on the fact that their father is in jail for a good portion of the book, and the Mortmain’s are so poor they sell everything not nailed down just to survive. Those kids were in mortal danger of simply starving to death the whole time.
Anna Fitzgerald in My Sister’s Keeper, by Jodi Picoult
When you are literally conceived as a source of spare parts for your very ill, very much preferred sister, it messes with your head a little. But before Anna can actually sue her parents to stop them from cutting her open for organs, she has to live long enough to become aware of her situation. And when your parents have been planning on cutting you open since birth, that’s not exactly a guarantee.