Writing a novel with a compelling plot requires putting characters in trouble, constantly presenting them with obstacles that make the reader turn the pages to see how they’ll manage to overcome them. And who faces more obstacles than a single parent, continually juggling the (exhausting!) demands of kids, a job, and running an entire household each day? These fictional single moms embody that struggle, while managing to amaze and inspire us at the same time.
Nerese “Tweetie” Ammons (Samaritan, by Richard Price)
Detective Nerese Ammons is the kind of single mom who makes the world go round. Not only is she a capable detective, solving crimes and teaching kids from the impoverished New Jersey neighborhood she clawed her way out of how to stay clear of trouble, but she’s raising her teenage son, Darren, and supporting her elderly alcoholic mother, her uncle, and her 97-year-old, Alzheimer’s-addled former father-in-law. She also looks out for her ne’er-do-well brothers. As she puts it, “I got a ton of people I’m carrying.” Nerese plans to retire to Florida after 20 years as a police officer, but first she agrees to solve the case of an assault on a childhood friend, Ray, who once helped her out of a jam. Still, she keeps her eyes on the Florida prize. “I tell my son Darren, he’s almost eighteen, I tell him if he don’t get accepted into a college with a scholarship attached, or have a real job come June? He’s going into the army, ’cause Mommy has left the building.”
Lulu Nanapush (Love Medicine, by Louise Erdrich)
Lulu Nanapush, who appears in several of Louise Erdrich’s novels, including Love Medicine and Tracks, is the mother of eight boys and one girl by a variety of fathers. Although she has a busy romantic life, she manages to maintain an orderly home. “Even with eight boys her house was neat as a pin. The candy bowl on the table sat precisely on its doily,” Erdrich writes. “All her furniture was brushed and straightened.” Perhaps the best thing about Lulu is her confidence in her choices, and her lack of concern for those who judge her. She says, “When they tell you that I was heartless, a shameless man-chaser, don’t ever forget this: I loved what I saw. And yes, it is true that I’ve done all the things they say. That’s not what gets them. What aggravates them is I’ve never shed one solitary tear. I’m not sorry. That’s unnatural. As we all know, a woman is supposed to cry. ”
Clarette (Between Heaven and Here, by Susan Straight)
Susan Straight delves into the gritty side of Rio Seco, California, her fictional version of Riverside, in this gorgeous, moving novel revolving around the death of 35-year-old Glorette Picard, an exceptionally beautiful woman who succumbs to crack addiction. Straight has been telling the stories of one family with roots in Creole Louisiana in several of her books, and thankfully not all of its members suffer fates as sad as that of Glorette. In Between Heaven and Here, we meet Clarette, who works double shifts at a youth correctional facility in order to pay for piano lessons and a good education for her kids.
Sylvia (The Flowers, by Dagoberto Gilb)
Sonny Bravo, a Mexican American 15-year-old, is the irresistible narrator of this remarkable novel. A lot of Sonny’s attention focuses on his unmarried, beautiful mom, Sylvia, whose various relationships with men often impinge on Sonny’s lifestyle. Sylvia eventually decides to marry a trophy-hunting white man named Cloyd Longpre, whom Sonny calls “The Cloyd,” and move the family to a building Longpre manages, “Las Flores,” which, as Sonny points out, should really be called “Los Flores.” However you spell it, the apartment building becomes the backdrop for Sonny’s adventures as he tries to navigate a mom who is suddenly home more often and more involved in his life than ever.
April Connors (The Garden of Last Days, by Andre Dubus III)
April Connors is a harried single mother of three-year-old Franny, trying to make ends meet while working as a stripper at Florida’s Puma Club for Men. Dubus sets up April’s dilemma perfectly: she has no other job prospects that pay well enough to support Franny, yet countless people judge her as a bad parent because she’s an exotic dancer. April’s worst day ever begins when her regular babysitter ends up in the hospital, forcing her to bring Franny with her to a place where there’s “no calling in sick.” She leaves Franny under the care of the unreliable “house mother,” who promptly loses her, setting off a heart-rending series of events in this gripping novel.
Who are your favorite single mothers in fiction?