14 May 2012

List love: A growing list of recommended books with elderly protagonists or significant elderly characters

I think it's about time I posted this, as I have been working on it for a couple of months.

I feel there isn’t enough fiction written about the elderly, or at least about the elderly as protagonists. The elderly in fiction tend to be supporting characters, often wise elders (such as  Dumbledore in the Harry Potter books) or cranky old neighbour types (e.g. the faculty of Unseen University in the Discworld series) or helpless oldsters (any number of books, especially children’s books) for the protagonist to either help or abuse (depending on whether they’re a hero or not).

Terry Pratchett has written several of my favourite elderly protagonists and they always kick ass in one way or another, so you will see several of his books on this list, either as listed items or ‘also’ mentions.

Without further ado: Here is a list of books with elderly protagonists or significant, important elderly characters. I leave it up to you to decide if you’re interested or not, but I certainly enjoyed (or, in one case, am enjoying) them. They are numbered, but that doesn't mean I like no. 1 better than no. 12. This is just the order in which I thought of them.

  1.  Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett. Fantasy. One of the two main protagonists in that book is a 130-year old wizard, Windle Poons, who dies and then comes back to life as a kind of zombie and starts to investigate some strange goings-on. Part of the supporting cast is the faculty of Unseen University, whose average age is somewhere over 80. One of my favourite Discworld books.
  2. The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson. Novel. This funny Swedish novel is coming out in English in September. On the eve of a grand celebration of his 100th birthday, an old man decides he can’t face the festivities and escapes out the window and sets off on an adventure. I’m reading it and it’s turning out to be a cross between Forrest Gump, Grumpy Old Men and a Marx Brothers movie with a side of Tarantino. It's due out in Britain in July and in the USA in September.
  3. Memento Mori by Muriel Spark. Novel. There is no one protagonist here, but rather a collection of elderly people who get mysterious phone calls that remind them of their mortality. Gruesomely funny.
  4. *insert your favourite Miss Marple mystery* by Agatha Christie. I could name The Body in the Library, Murder at the Vicarage or 4:50 from Paddington, but I think for this particular list I will nominate Sleeping Murder. Miss Marple may look like a harmless old lady, perhaps a bit of a busybody, but as those who dare commit crimes anywhere near her find out to their detriment, she is as sharp as a stiletto and very, very good at solving crimes.
  5. Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett. The pivotal characters are a trio of witches, two of whom are elderly, and Ridcully, Archchancellor of Unseen University also plays an important part in it. The rest of the Witches books might be mentioned as well. Full of mayhem and Pratchett's signature humour.
  6. The Coroner’s Lunch by Colin Cotterill. The protagonist is 72-year old Dr. Siri Paiboun who has been made - against his will - the coroner for Laos. The year is 1975, and he has his hands full trying to prevent a war with Vietnam and prove that the wife of a high-up official was murdered. The first in a series. Darkly funny.
  7. Our First Murder by Torrey Chanslor. About two elderly sisters, Amanda and Lutie Beagle, who inherit a detective agency in New York and rather than sell it decide to run it. So off they go to the big city, with their middle-aged cousin Marthy Meecham, and their very first case is a gruesome murder. Practical, take-charge Amanda is the leader of the group, but inquisitive and brave little Lutie is the one who solves the cases, aided by sidekick Marthy. A delightful little detective novel.
  8. Travels with my Aunt by Graham Greene. Aunt Augusta has to be one of literature’s great creations, a disreputable old woman bent on having some fun in her old age (or rather continuing to have fun). I hope I have as much fun as she did when I grow old.
  9. The Last Hero by Terry Pratchett, illustrated by Paul Kidby. Cohen the Barbarian and his Silver Horde, Evil Harry Dread (a retired Dark Lord) and Vena the Raven-Haired (a Red Sonja-style heroine), are all elderly but spry and ready for anything. Also featured in this book is Leonard of Quirm, who is depicted as an old man, and the old people carry the story. (I might also mention The Last Continent, in which the Silver Horde are benign villains, and The Light Fantastic in which Cohen is first introduced, albeit as a supporting character).
  10. Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett. LuTze is as much a leading character as are Susan and Jeremy/Lobsang, and he is much, much funnier.
  11. The Brother Cadfael books. Any one may do, but I am partial to A Morbid Taste for Bones and The Leper of Saint Giles.
  12. Come to think of it, Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett qualifies as well, because of Sargent Jackrum, who must be at least between 70 and 80 years old. Besides having written so many strong elderly lead characters, there are numerous elderly supporting characters, e.g. the UU faculty. 
  13. Edit: I can't believe I forgot Two Old Women by Welma Wallis. It's a wonderful survival tale about two old Athabascan women who are abandoned by their tribe during a harsh winter and are forced to remember the survival skills and knowledge of the terrain from their youth in order to survive the winter. 
  14. Second edit:  Since posting the last edit I have read one more book I really must recommend: Vestal Fire by Compton Mackenzie. It features a community of ageing expats living on a fictional Italian island (based on Capri) and a  serpent that arrives in their midst.
Honorable mention goes to Mrs. Pollifax from the books by Dorothy Gilman. I can’t rightly put the books on the list because of their varying quality and because I don’t agree with some of the political views expressed in them, but the old lady herself definitely kicks ass.

You might be surprised to not find The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings on this list, but although several lead characters in those books are old or even very old in human terms (Gandalf, Bilbo, Legolas, Gimli), the only protagonist who looks it is Gandalf (and Bilbo, but only in LOTR in which he is not a major player), but Gandalf is not human and we don’t know what is old for his kind. Therefore he doesn’t count.

On the TBR I have The Old Boys by William Trevor. Can you recommend more?

6 comments:

Sophia said...

Hmm, this is an interesting one. A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon springs to mind, though the protagonist is on the cusp of middle age/elderly so might not count.

Bibliophile said...

Thanks for the suggestion, Sophia.

Dave Berns said...

For a listing of good books for elderly readers, that have many elderly characters, check out www.BooksForElderly.com

Bibliophile said...

Thank you for the link, Dave.

Soo said...

How about Crossing to Safety by William Stegner and The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence?

colleenrose said...

A friend recommended Remnant Population by Elizabeth Moon. I adored the main character: morally strong--stubborn!--while facing physical decline, she maintains a sense of purpose and dignity. Her society tries to push her to the side, insisting that the younger generation, highly trained though inexperienced, can do much better work. She stands her ground and is finally recognized for her worth.