Beyond 'Here's This Cute Thing My Kid Did': The Exquisite Drama of Parenting Stories

Narratives about child-rearing have been maligned as boring. King Lear would beg to differ.

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The "rearing of children", we're told, is a boring subject. Here are some stories about parenting.

  • Lisa, a former opera singer, and her young adoptive Jewish son, Kolya, leave Kiev in 1941 with all the other "Yids" on order of the Germans, who have just occupied the city. Lisa and Kolya think they are being transferred to Palestine. In fact they are to be massacred and thrown into the Babi Yar ravine. Before they face the machine guns, Lisa realizes they are to be shot, and attempts to use the fact that she is not Jewish to escape. One guard lets her go...but will not release Kolya, so Lisa has to beg to return to the death march in order to be with her son. Later she convinces another guard to release her and Kolya—but a higher official insists they be shot so the rest of the town isn't notified of the massacre. She comforts her son as they stand before the firing squad and tells him they will be together in heaven. Then they are murdered.
  • Wonder Woman's mother, the Amazon Queen Hippolyte, looks in a magic sphere on Paradise Island and sees her daughter killed by a thug. Hippolyte races to man's world where (unable to reveal herself for obscure Amazon reasons) she impersonates her daughter. Then (wearing a mask so that Wonder Woman can't recognize her) she wrestles WW to the ground and takes her magic lasso. In the short term this makes Wonder Woman extremely petulant. In the long term—through a series of improbable events involving amnesia gas, secret war plans, and the old damsel-tied-to-the-tracks-gag—it ends up saving her life.
  • Denethor, the steward of Gondor, loses his favorite son, Boromir. Out of spite and bitterness, he sends his remaining son, Faramir, to certain death in battle. When Faramir is struck down, Denethor is overcome with grief and despair, and, as his town is besieged, lights a pyre to burn himself and his son's body. Faramir is not dead, however, and he is saved from the fire at the last minute. Denethor dies in the flames.

These stories are quite disparate. The first is a summary of the end of D.M. Thomas' 1981 novel The White Hotel. The second is a thumbnail description of the plot William Marston and Harry Peter's story from Sensation Comics #26 in February 1944. The third—which certainly seems to me to have something to do with the rearing of children, even if the children in question are now adults—is a subplot from Peter Jackson's 2003 film Return of the King, based on the Tolkien novel. All three, though, are united in that they are, as I said, about parenting—and in that they are not the sort of thing that comes to mind when you say that you are going to talk about parenting.

Instead, when people say "parenting stories," they mean more or less what Matt Gross, Theodore Ross, and Nathan Thornburgh talked about in their essays for The Atlantic. That is, they think of stories that boil down, as Gross says disparagingly, to "Here's this cute thing my kid did."

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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