Learn From These Fictional Fathers of Note

Part of being a Dad is not having much time anymore for picking up that gripping paperback on the bedside table. (Instead, you’re snoring under a copy of Goodnight Moon after putting the, ahem, kids to sleep.) Still, fiction is where you learn about the complex emotions and tough decisions involved in being a Papa. As a parent, no reference book can provide all the answers—spoiler alert: you will learn on the job—so you might as well enjoy a good yarn. Beyond the canonical good Dads, like Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird, or the most terrible fathers ever, such as Humbert Humbert in Lolita, here is a list of some less known Papas in fiction, who combine compelling stories with the complex characters that make up fatherhood.

Hunger Eats a Man by Nkosinathi Sithole
This novel covers not only the relationship between a father and his son, but also the powerful themes of inequality and racial injustice. Father Gumede is a farmhand and a local preacher living in a small town in South Africa. He is a good man, who, like all of us, wants to do right by his family by providing for them financially and spiritually. However, he renounces the church after becoming distraught by the treatment of the poor by the affluent neighboring white community, who control the wealth and power. His son acts as the incredibly compelling, and ultimately hopeful, narrator in this riveting tale.

The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez
Immigrant father characters are usually depicted as one dimensionally good or one dimensionally evil, but this novel explores the complexity of person and circumstance with great sensitivity. Through multiple narrators, it centers on two families, one from Mexico, the other from Panama, who end up living in the same apartment building in Delaware. Like all good tales, this one centers around a love story. Perhaps the most moving relationship, though, is between parent and child, as a father has trouble adjusting to the new culture and language, but tries anyway so his daughter can have a better life.

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
Gogol Ganguli has always felt uneasy with the name his father, Ashoke, wrote down on his birth certificate. But Ashoke wouldn’t be alive if not for The Overcoat, the Russian classic he was reading when he barely escaped a bad train accident many years prior. The universal story of a father and son struggling to understand each other is not new, but the book’s subtle and brilliant treatment of the pair’s exchanges deftly reveals their genuine love.

Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maude Montgomery
Stoic and gentle Matthew Cuthbert isn’t related to the tempestuous title character, Anne Shirley, but they end up forming one of the most endearing father-daughter bonds in fiction. Matthew convinces his sister to let Anne stay with them at Green Gables rather than being sent back to an orphanage, and through his steadfast actions (he’s a man of very few words) teaches her that being kind and sticking to your values are not competing virtues but rather complementary.

The Godfather Mario Puzo
Don Corleone may be a ruthless mafia don, busy breaking legs and enforcing his iron will around town, but he is a firm believer that a real man makes time for his family. If you take away the gangster bits (hey, they keep you reading), you’re left with the story of a father and his sons, driven by love and power like the most iconic of tales. It’s debatable whether he is a good father, but it’s undeniable that he is a loyal one.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
At the opening of this novel, we meet John Ames, a pastor at a local church who is dying. He furiously starts writing piles of memories to his seven-year-old son to ensure that the child will remember him. The beautiful thing about Gilead (a fictional autobiography) is that it is fully centered on the father and son without any of the usual theatrics. It’s about a man grappling with his mortality and the legacy he will leave behind through distilling lessons he learned from men in his own life.