The landscape of the Dad

Patriarchs live in deserts. On what modern readers might see as the positive side, they produce water for the thirsty, food for the hungry, and field forty years’ worth of “Can we go back?” and “Are we nearly there?” The Patriarch Moses and God work together on this one: Dayenu.

They also act in a (euphemism alert) risky way – Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac [an interesting blog post here] is not a model for parenthood easily adopted.

Chagall, Abraham ready to sacrifice his Son dv 1960-6
Chagall, Abraham ready to sacrifice his Son dv 1960-6

Dads live somewhere else. As Mat Tobin has recently explored with Keith Negley in response to his wonderful book Tough Guys (Have Feelings Too), they might live with a landscape that is a  “metaphor for frustration,” or in a cityscape that is created from block colours, but it seems to me that it is often rooted, in young children’s books, in a recognisable reality. It might not always be a positive thing to have your dad in the quotidianum  – think of the dad in Antony Browne’s Zoo, or Lauren’s Child’s Clarice Bean and her grumpy absentee  – but they are at least the common-or-garden dad. Even the fantastic, crazy world of classic Babar has Celesteville, and French family life is lived out in a gentle satire. It’s as if a dad cannot be a dad without reference to the everyday.

So the landscape of the Patriarch, even when geographically locatable, is in many ways the landscape of myth and legend (I have discussed legend-landscapes before), and the landscape of the dad is emotionally, socially (and geographically? I’m beginning to doubt this – see below) rooted in the recognisable. What might the exceptions be to this? A v quick list for me (as much as anyone) to think about:

  • Julia Donaldson’s Gruffalo’s Child, Cave Baby and Stick Man;
  • Tove Janson’s Moominpapa (passim);
  • The dads in the Ahlbergs’ Happy Families books;
  • Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox.

What these all have in common is that the application of dadness to these fantastic contexts require an understanding of the everyday dad to interpret the fantastic –   “Interpretation calls upon the interpreter to render explicit a work’s meaning today. ” (Palmer, R (1969) Hermeneutics. Evanston: Northwest University Press. p 245).  We read these dads into their story party because of their relationship to the other dads we know.  Celesteville could be suburban France (or suburban European anywhere), the Gruffalo’s Child has an everyday dad-daughter relationship at its heart, and so on.

And so back to Keith Negley’s Tough Guys – and little more than to post anyone reading this to the significance of Keith Negley’s first response to Mat’s question about exploring masculinity: for Negley the project is in part for his own son (and iteratively for his own father?) and portraying in a positive way the emotional vulnerability the author-illustrator has “struggled with.” The last endpapers of Tough Guys – sampled by Mat here – show men in caring adult (dad or quasi-dad?) roles [the clever self-subversion being that it is the boys who are the superheroes: a real surprise to me]. The dads are Everyman dads, although they are unsited, depicted on a white background, they are doing the everyday stuff, playing with the boys. The interpreting reader brings to these vignettes the living room, the park, the garden.

The landscape of the dad, the everydayness of the relationships can therefore be aspirational – how a dad “ought” to be, or critical –  how a dad “ought not” to be; but in either sense there must be something in the relationship that shows we are in the world of the dad, not the desert of the Patriarch.





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