Old but Not Out: Senior Citizen Protagonists in Fiction

Cover image for The 100 year-old man who climbed out the window and disappeared

Growing old is not something we like to think about in general, and yet the library has a sizeable collection of titles suggesting anti-aging strategies so we must like to read about it at least.  Youth is a stage we all go through, and it usually is seen as more attractive, which is probably why we have no shortages of literature and other media for and about them.  That doesn’t mean of course that you stop living as one becomes a “senior citizen” though, in fact it can be refreshing to read from the viewpoint of someone who has been around, nor does it need to be depressing and sad.

I recently saw the movie version of the Swedish novel The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson, and I had more laughs through it than in any other comedies in a long time.  For those who have not read the book, this is a very funny comedy with hints of Forrest Gump (the unlikely life of protagonist Allan is filled with close encounters of the historical kind told in flashbacks) but with more weird humor.  Like the title implies, Allan decides on his birthday to just leave his nursing home and go on a trip with no clear destination in mind.  He ends up meeting and befriending a cast of unusual characters that accompany him on his journey while being chased by both police and criminals over a mysterious suitcase he “borrowed.”

Cover image for A man called Ove

I then read A Man Called Ove and again had a great time reading about the life, struggles and adventures of an older protagonist.  When you first meet Ove, he is the stereotypical isolated curmudgeon, but through the narration of his life up to the point where he lost his beloved wife, you come to grow attached to this decent man who talked more through his actions than his words and stuck to his decency and convictions through thick and thin.  Deep down, Ove is tired of living without his Sonia, and he tries repeatedly to end it all and join her.  The problem is: people from his neighborhood annoyingly keep foiling his preparations by wanting to befriend him and ask for his help with their problems, which he can’t seem to be able to ever refuse despite his vocal protests.

Cover image for The little old lady who broke all the rules

Still in a Swedish setting (one could detect a trend?) the Little Old Lady Who Broke All the Rules is the first volume in a series by Catharina Sundberg starring Martha Andersson, a 79 year old nursing home resident.  Martha, along with her group the “League of Pensioners,” have no intention to suffer the indignities of old age in the sub-standard conditions and indifferent treatment from the staff.  What begins as minor rebellions against home regulations escalate until they decide to try to break of the home out and plan a bank heist that will allow them to finance better facilities (or end up in jail, which would still be an improvement as far as they are concerned).  As it often happens, plans go haywire, but that doesn’t mean that one should underestimate the determination of this group of pensioners.  This is recommended for readers who enjoy light and funny reading.

Cover image for Etta and Otto and Russell and James.

Moving on to a Canadian author, Emma Hooper’s Etta and Otto and Russell and James, takes a more sober and mystical tone to explore themes like repressed memories and loss and regrets and how we deal with them.  The last of the titular characters, James, is actually a (talking!) coyote that Etta, an 82 year old farmer’s wife from Saskatchewan, meets on a 3200 kilometer trek to see the Atlantic for the first time in her life.  Her husband Otto learns of her walking odyssey through a note she left for him (along with recipe cards for him to try), and since he already crossed the Atlantic to fight in the Second World War, he decides to wait for her but will still go through an inner journey of his own.  Russell had loved Etta from afar for a very long time and decides to go after her but ends up going on a different path.  What sounds like a straightforward plot when you begin reading, is really the setting for a tale filled with symbolism: the sea that Etta is walking toward is not just the one off the coast of Halifax, and the line between present, past and dreams blurs has we read on.

Cover image for The widower's tale

In The Widower’s Tale  by Julia Glass, retired librarian and septuagenarian Percy Darling is living contently on his large property near Boston decades after having lost his wife and raised two children.  While he was quite happy spending his days swimming, reading and watching old movies, the unexpected return of one of his daughters soon means the end of his comfortable solitary routine, as an upscale preschool is opened in his barn.  Percy’s life is transformed by all these new people and the possibilities they bring.  He reconnects with his favourite grandson, who is getting involved with a friend’s environmental “activism,” and meets a woman who awakens dormant romantic feelings.  But this also means confronting past secrets and pains, for Percy and all the newcomers.  The story follows several points of views and explores flawed characters mostly succeeding in improving themselves and their community.  Everyone involved will have to face personal issues and choose how to move forward with new relationships and settings.

Cover image for Don't ever get old

One downside about growing old is that your body starts betraying you and you become more squishy all around.  That does not mean that senior citizens cannot kick your rear end if you deserve it.  In the mystery Daniel Friedman’s Don’t Ever Get Old, an ex-Memphis detective “Buck” Schatz reluctantly sets after an old nemesis, partly to settle scores, partly to recover a possible treasure in gold.  Well into his eighties, Buck is literally “too old for this” but instincts die hard, plus he has the help of his grandson “Tequila” to help with with things like “the googles” and other un-familiar technologies.  Since other less savoury parties are soon also on the trail of the gold, real violence soon becomes part of the story.  While humor is still present, this is very much the story of an hard-boiled mystery novel, with a good mix of sober realism and defiant humor in the face of one’s mortality.  Our hero is not one to dwell on regrets, but he has to face the reality of being in a world that has moved on since his glory days, and where physical and mental limitations cannot be ignored no matter how much one would want to.

Cover image for The universe versus Alex Woods

The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence is a coming-of-age tale with an unlikely friendship between Mr. Peterson, a reclusive widower who fought in Vietnam, and the titular character, the son of a fortune teller who was stuck by a meteorite when he was 10 years old.  The story begins with Alex in the process of being arrested by customs after being caught with drugs and a funeral urn.  The rest of the story is how he came to be in this situation, how an elderly fan of Kurt Vonnegut and an awkward but smart teen struggling with the after-effects of his injury come to rely on each other while facing different sets of challenges that led them to live through unexpected experiences.

As the saying goes: growing old is inevitable, but growing up is optional.

Louis-Philippe

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