We didn’t plan it this way. We couldn’t have. In 1958, my late mother Edna Robinson wrote her first and only novel, The Trouble with the Truth, expanding a short story by the same title that was published by the renowned New World Writing book series. From the perspective of an adult, protagonist Lucresse Briard tells her tale of growing up without a mother in a nomadic family that traverses America during the late 1920s and early ’30s. Much more than a coming-of-age story, the novel wrestles with big truths that include paradoxes. In 1960, the book was optioned by Harper & Row—just in time to be dumped because the single, altruistic father with two peculiar children, combined with a 1930s setting, was deemed the sole territory of To Kill a Mockingbird. Edna was crushed and put the book in a closet for the rest of her life.
In 2009, after losing my magazine job in the recession, I channeled all my frustration into humor, with my novel The Last Will & Testament of Zelda McFigg. At age 14, Zelda McFigg runs away from a drunk and ineffective mother and spends the rest of the story doing whatever it takes—lying, stealing, incinerating houses—to eat…and eat and eat. She is 4’11” and weighs 237 pounds. Zelda McFigg was seen as a cousin to A Confederacy of Dunces‘ Ignatius Reilly, and the story of her misadventures won Black Lawrence Press’s Big Moose Prize. It was published in September of 2014.
My mother, Edna Robinson, adored her own mother, and I adored Edna. I also admired her writing so much that in 2013, I pulled her manuscript out of my closet, edited and doctored it, and four months later sold it to a new imprint of Simon & Schuster, which published it in February.
Why do two women who adore their mothers write stories with absent mothers? The key may be in the protagonists’ sense, or delusion, of being invisible—a common theme for people who have lacked healthy mirroring from a mother when they were very small. But absent mothers also make for great “heroine’s journeys,” and have a long history in traditional tales and children’s literature.
According to a Snopes report on the notable absence of mothers in Walt Disney films, “This circumstance is prevalent…because it is the central dynamic that propels the plots of those kinds of stories: They are coming-of-age tales, and the absence of one or both parents forces the youthful main characters to venture into the larger world without parental guidance and protection (particularly of the maternal kind), to learn the lessons necessary to overcome adversity, and to succeed or fail on their own terms.”
So just as Bambi learns to survive in the forest, Pinocchio learns to be directed by his conscience, and Dumbo learns to fly, Lucresse Briard and Zelda McFigg must learn to feel visible, and Edna and Betsy Robinson must now admit they can be seen.