Ten Thrilling Mothers

by Jenny Milchman


Some of our oldest stories have mothers behind them—think Jocasta from Oedipus Rex or even Eve, mother of two very troubled brothers. This may be attributable to the fact that as disparate as the human experience is, we all have a mother, she’s part of our origin stories, if only for nine prenatal months. Or it may reflect an unconscious tendency to lay blame at the feet of women—just who caused all that strife between Cain and Abel anyway? What was their childhood garden like?

Whatever the explanation, mothers are the driving force in some truly great literature!


Mother, Mother by Koren Zailckas

Twenty-something Rose is missing. Her sister Violet is miserable, hospitalized, and depressed. And little brother Will just wants to please the woman who birthed them all. As water shapes rock, and wind stunts trees, so does the pathological narcissism of this matriarch warp and twist her children’s lives. The novel plumbs the dark depths at the core of the most ubiquitous unit in society. The family.


Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage

A tale so tense your teeth nearly shear off from biting down as you read. Suzette wants only to be a good mom. But little Hanna makes it so hard! For one thing, she can’t talk. Or won’t talk. For another, she acts out violently and destructively at every turn. Or does she? Suzette’s husband has never seen any such behaviors in their daughter. Is this a tale of a seven-year-old master manipulator? Or a mother who, for dark reasons from her past, projects an identity that her child wants desperately to shake?


Room by Emma Donoghue

We only meet Ma through her young son, Jack, but oh, what a mother she is. Fierce protectiveness between mother and child, even in a terribly dysfunctional, dangerous situation, is the theme of this novel and also the one below. Is there anything a mother won’t do for her child, or any circumstance too meager to allow her to do it? Luckily for Jack, born into captivity in a single room, the answer is no.


Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips

Another day of mothering has unraveled to its inevitable end, and Joan and her four-year-old son are leaving the zoo. But then Joan sees something so impossible, so awful, she turns and runs the other way with her son in her arms. For the next three hours—and the rest of the novel—Joan must keep Lincoln safe in an environment that once provided nothing more than a fun, distracting outing, and has now become as alien as motherhood itself.


Step on a Crack by Mary Anderson

You’ll need to find a used copy of this young adult tale, but the mother-daughter pair at its heart are worth the effort. Sarah is plagued by a nightmare in which she kills her mother, followed by a waking compulsion to steal a special item. The secret underlying her twisted behavior and tormented dream is like a spiral staircase, corkscrewing in on itself and leading to a perilous landing.


Lizzie by Dawn Ius

We’ve all heard the rhyme: “Lizzie Borden took an ax, gave her mother…” In this modern young adult retelling, Lisbeth is the child of an overbearing (step)mother living in a small Massachusetts community, and also a deeply feminist character, coming-of-age, finding love, and ultimately owning an anger that far too often, especially in girls, is demonized.


Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin

You can’t get much more chilling than the woman who bears Satan’s earthly incarnation, except that Rosemary Woodhouse is an unwitting participant in the situation. Read with a contemporary eye, her role as mother of the little devil can be flip-flopped. Yet another woman whose life is co-opted by a man to achieve his own fantastical and egotistical aims.


Carrie by Stephen King

You knew the King had to be somewhere on this list, right? As with Lizzie, this is a novel about the power of anger in a young woman—and the fear with which we treat it, as opposed to understanding or respect. Also a similarity, Carrie is being raised by an oppressive mother, whose religious obsessions wrap her daughter in a straitjacket just as the full bloom of righteous womanhood beckons.


The Lottery by Shirley Jackson

Not obviously a tale about a mother, this short story centers on the way one small village keeps itself running smoothly with bountiful harvests and a lively sense of tradition. But it’s in the white space of the story—in particular, Tessie Hutchinson’s reference to an unseen character named Eva—that Tessie’s all-too-human, yet chilling self-interest emerges, along with a lack of the maternal instinct for self-sacrifice that may in fact be the greatest fiction of all.


The Bad Seed by William March

At the core of this classic is whether maternal psychopathy skips a generation, which means that somewhere along the line there was a murderous mother. But it’s oh-so-sweet Rhoda’s mom that gives the novel its redeeming heart—and a final scene that is, shall we say, the mother of the “uh-oh” ending.


JENNY MILCHMAN’S latest novel, The Second Mother (8/18/2020), features one thrilling (and chilling) mother. Learn more here: www.sourcebooks.com/books-by-jenny-milchman

Milchman is an award-winning, critically acclaimed novelist from the Hudson River Valley of New York State. Her debut novel, Cover of Snow, won the Mary Higgins Clark Award, and Ruin Falls, As Night Falls and Wicked River (Sourcebooks Landmark) were all Indie Next picks.