10 of the most memorable senior citizens in literature
In 2007, Nelson Mandela formed a human rights group called The Elders. Although entry isn’t age specific, experience is. Together these former heads of states, diplomats and attorney generals form a unique band of global leaders, using their deep knowledge and wisdom to work for peace. In some ways it’s like a mature opposite of the gun-worshipping movie Red.
Red, Calendar Girls and Quarter are signs of Hollywood's hunger for the grey pound. Such cynical ghettoisation has yet to hit publishing in the same way (discuss), which is great. Great because it allows a general readership to absorb the wisdom of elder characters.
With this in mind, for Senior Citizens Day, we wanted to celebrate some of the most memorable elders in fiction. This isn’t a definitive list so please add your choices in the comments below (using Twitter or Facebook to login, or just your email address) so others can find your choices…
1. Mr Tom, Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian
Abused at home, young Willie Beech is uprooted from his urban life to the countryside due to World War Two. Nurtured by the care and wisdom of an elderly recluse, Tom Oakley, he begins to flourish and, in turn, bring Mr Tom out of his shell. Goodnight Mr Tom was published in 1981 but it remains a fantastically popular children's novel and reminds us of the powerful impact older, wiser, and calmer citizens can have on the young.
2. Allan Karlsson, The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson
Many grand tales are lost when we tune out from older members of society
In a youth-obsessed culture, books like The Hundred-Year-Old Man serve to remind us that many grand tales are lost when we tune out from older members of society. In this bestselling novel, the action starts when Allan Karlsson escapes from his 100th birthday party by climbing out the window of his old folks' home. In his slippers, he sets off into a world of adventures both past and present.
Listen to our discussion of Jonasson’s worldwide bestseller on Book Talk.
3. Man, Everyman by Philip Roth
No one does old quite like Roth. In Everyman we spend a novella in the company of a man mournfully reflecting on his life’s achievements, frustrations, regrets and hurts. Sabbath’s Theatre or Nathan Zukerman’s farewell in Exit Ghost might be more high profile, and more madcap Rothian examples. However, there is something about the depth of meaning attached to the everyday trials of a long life, captured in Everyman, that stays with the reader long after the final page.
4. Iris Chase, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
The temptation to use an older narrator must be powerful draw for novelists - the breadth of story one can draw on is vast. Take Iris in The Blind Assassin. Married at 18 to a wealthy industrialist, Iris is now 82, poor and suffering failing health. In this moving book, Iris reflects on her past, and her part in her cult novelist sister’s untimely death.
5. Harriet Baxter, Gillespie & I by Jane Harris
Memorably described by Peggy Hughes (writing in The Scotsman) as 'literary crack cocaine', Gillespie & I slowly unpacks the innocence of Harriet Baxter. Now a kindly older lady living out her modest life in London, it's Baxter's complicated past relationship with the artistic Gillespie family in Victorian Glasgow that fascinates, beguiles, and permanently unsettles the reader.
Listen to our discussion of Jane Harris' fantastically dark novel, and our interview with the author, on Book Talk.
6. Ebenezer Scrooge, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Children of all ages often complain of the stuck-in-their-ways attitudes of their parents - especially around Christmas, or when they must help them set things up on the internet. As Ebenezer Scrooge demonstrates, however, none of us are too old to change, especially when we’re visited by the supernatural during the night.
7. Grandma, George's Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl
When George is forced to stay with his horrid grandma he invents his own marvellous medicine to replace the nasty one his gran keeps forcing him to take. When his nanna takes it she grows as big as a house and has to sleep in the barn as George's dad encourages George to recreate his original medicine to sell to agribusiness. Grandma soons grows tired of being ignored and gambles on George's new batch of medicine...
8. Gandalf, The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
Gandalf the Grey proves that you’re never too old to lead an army into battle
At first glance one might have mistaken Gandalf as a wizened old man selling fireworks to country bumpkins, but this grey-haired embodiment of power and wisdom soon proves there’s more to this elderly gent than first meets the eye.
Gandalf the Grey proves that you’re never too old to lead an army into battle. And yet, despite Gandalf's intimidating power, it's comforting to see him respond to frustrations (which way to go in the tunnels of Moria for example) by popping off for a sit down and a contemplative smoke.
9. Sarah Durham, Love Again by Doris Lessing
Unlike the patronising senior citizen episodes of Blind(da) Date, Doris Lessing portrays the agelessness of love through the compelling story of theatre producer Sarah Durham. Sarah commissions a play based on the journals of Julia Vairon, a wayward, mixed-race beauty from the 19th century. All those involved in the play’s production are changed by it, including Durham. Her new and intense love for two younger men forces her to reflect on loves past and those yet to come.
10. Miss Marple, Miss Marple series by Agatha Christie
Miss Marple is everyone’s favourite elderly female amateur detective. Appearing in 12 novels and 20 short stories, this resident of St. Mary Mead (which must be the most violent village in England) shows no lack of mental acuity in her sunset years. Her uncanny knack for linking casual comments to cases at hand is legendary.
Want more themed lists to take to the bookshop? Check out our themed book lists for adults, teens and kids.