There’s nothing like parental supervision to quash potential adventure. That’s why there’s a rich tradition of unsupervised children in literature. Here are five terrific novels about what happens when the parents exit stage right.
Huck Finn (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain)
Mark Twain’s indelible creation, Huck Finn, set the standard for all unsupervised children in literature to follow. Even mischievous Tom Sawyer looks downright helicopter-parented compared to Huck. Breaking away from his drunken Pap, Huck heads first to nearby Jackson Island, where he meets Jim, who’s hoping to escape from slavery. The two set out on a raft down the Mississippi River, cooking meals the way they like them (“In a barrel of odds and ends it is different; things get mixed up, and the juice kind of swaps around, and the things go better”), waking up whenever they feel like it (when it “looked late, and SMELT late”), washing irregularly, and generally getting into all sorts of trouble, in the process of proving the peaceful society of equals they enjoy on the raft is superior to the unjust world on land.
Cricket Keating and her brothers (Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, by Ramona Ausubel)
In Ramona Ausubel’s endearing new novel, born-wealthy couple Fern and Edgar Keating learn Fern’s family money has run out. Rather than join his father’s business, Edgar decides to initiate an affair and take off with a woman on an impromptu boat trip. Fern tries to get back at Edgar by heading on a cross-country road trip with “an actual giant.” Each parent thinks the other one is minding their three children. Luckily, their oldest child, Cricket, is a trusty 9-year-old, who decides she can take care of her twin 6-year-old brothers rather than letting any authority know their parents have split. Cricket does a good job of it, marching her brothers to school each morning, in their uniforms, while letting freedom reign at night. They pitch a teepee, paint their faces, and survive on canned beans and ice cream.
Esch Batiste and her brothers (Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward)
In Jesmyn Ward’s magnificent, National Book Award–winning novel, narrator Esch is a 14-year-old girl who’d be completely adrift except for the strong bonds of brotherly love her family provides as she grows up in the fictional Mississippi Gulf Coast town of Bois Sauvage. Esch’s mother died giving birth to her youngest brother, Junior, now 7 years old, while her father is an alcoholic, broken after the loss of his wife. He keeps warning the kids about the storm approaching, that will become Hurricane Katrina. They pay him little mind, as they’ve learned not to rely on him for their daily needs, but instead focus on their own preoccupations—Esch ruminates on her unrequited love for a boy who has gotten her pregnant, while her brother Skeetah cares for his beloved pit bull, who has just had puppies, and her brother Randal tries to score a basketball scholarship. This novel will shred your heart with its power and beauty as it surges toward its climax.
Kirstin Raymonde (Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel)
When Station Eleven opens, Kirstin Raymonde is an eight-year-old acting in a production of King Lear in Toronto. The show’s Lear, Hollywood-famous Arthur Leander, dies on stage of a heart attack, never knowing that an epidemic is spreading across the world, wiping out the population. Kirstin’s parents, presumably struck down by the flu, never come to pick her up. Instead her older brother fetches her, and they wander together, trying to survive. Kirstin eventually joins a roving theater troupe known as the Traveling Symphony. We rejoin Kirstin when she’s in her twenties, when she can no longer access her memories of what happened during the year she wandered with her brother before finding this new home among thespians. We know the year wasn’t child’s play: she has become an expert knife thrower, and has two daggers tattooed on her wrist to mark the lives she had to take to survive.
Joe Coutts (The Round House, by Louise Erdrich)
A boy detective can’t very well solve a crime if a parent is snooping around, preventing him from investigating. In Erdrich’s masterful The Round House, 13-year-old Joe Coutts is determined to solve the mystery of who raped his mother, leaving her psychologically shattered. Along with his friends, Joe visits the scene of the crime, the round house on the reservation, seeking any clues the cops might have missed. Although Joe is relentless in his pursuit of the criminal, he and his friends also use their unwatched state to get up to some typical teenage activity. They sneak out to watch TV through the window of the parish priest, seeing more than they’d ever wanted to, and while Joe’s parents are preoccupied, he bonds with and lusts after his Uncle Whitey’s wife, Sonja, an ex-stripper.