Tear-soaked novels keep readers coming back for more

Tear in woman’s eye


Catharsis goes beyond childhood

Unfortunately, in the realm of sad literature, nothing eases with age. In fact, adult literature will see your dead dog and raise you a mother forced to Auschwitz who must choose which of her children to save (that would be “Sophie’s Choice” by William Styron).

Maybe it’s because, as adult readers, we come to literature with an adult’s understanding and experience, but the books we read beyond childhood often seem so uncompromisingly sad — wounds that linger and haunt and twist into scars. Oh, there may ultimately be catharsis, but there’s also a mountain of sodden tissue:


“Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck (1937)

Friends since youth, itinerant laborers George Milton and Lennie Small encounter trouble at a central California ranch. A woman with soft hair lets big, slow Lennie pet it, and things do not end well.

Tissues: 13. Lennie loves rabbits, and as the lynching party advances to grab him, George pulls out his gun and tells Lennie all about the farm they’ll buy one day and the rabbits they’ll raise.


“Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes (1966)

Charlie Gordon, a man with mental retardation, undergoes experimental surgery to boost his intelligence and it works for a while. Then…

Tissues: 12. Charlie is aware of what’s happening to him, so he leaves to spare his friends the pain of watching it happen. He only asks that they put flowers on the grave of Algernon, a mouse.


“Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)

In a dystopian future, Ruth, Tommy and Kathy grow up at a “boarding school” called Halisham, not realizing that they’re clones whose purpose in life is to supply organs for “normals” until “completion” (their deaths).

Tissues: 27. Where to even begin with this one? The scene where Kathy’s dancing to a song called “Never Let Me Go”? The desperate bid for three extra years before the inexorable march to “completion”? The last scene, perhaps one of the most desolate things ever set to paper?


“A Death in the Family” by James Agee (1957)

On the way home from visiting his sick father, a man named Jay dies in a car crash. His wife, Mary, and children, Rufus and Catherine, must cope with the loss.

Tissues: 11. The morning after the accident, Rufus wakes up excited to show his dad the cap is aunt bought for him. So, Mary gets to tell Rufus the news, and life is capricious, unsteady and often terrible.


“The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” by Carson McCullers (1940)

Nothing works out ever for various residents of a small southern town who confess their secrets to deaf-mute John Singer, who has his own sorrows.

Tissues: 14. John is the nicest guy in the world and can’t catch a break: his institutionalized best friend, Spiros Antonapoulos, dies, and the novel goes straight to quiet and Eleanor Rigby-ish hell.

The saddest book I’ve ever read ...

Because each reader is different, bringing his or her own history and feelings and thoughts to the experience of reading, sadness can mean different things to different readers and at different times. Every reader, it seems, has a book that they rank as sad, sadder or maybe even the saddest they ever read:



“The saddest book I’ve ever read was one I picked up in Woodstock, New York, when I was living alone there in an unheated farmhouse, meditating in a Zen center, and discovering my own sadness. It was a great story and protest novel, ‘Cry, the Beloved Country’ by Alan Paton, written the year apartheid was legalized in South Africa.

“The last scene is still engraved in my heart: The narrator father wakes up at 4 a.m. and goes outside to pray for his son, who is being executed at dawn. I think sadness in a reader comes from our own deepest memories and our compassion. The sadness was one of the great gifts of the book. (After that long winter, I packed up and moved to the West.)”

— Sandy Dorr, founder of the Western Colorado Writers’ Forum



“Hands down the saddest book I’ve ever read is Tillie Olsen’s ‘Tell Me a Riddle.’ The book’s value has to do with its sadness. The sadness is what makes the book great. It’s about a couple of Jewish Russian immigrants who have been married for 60 years and have raised six children together. She develops cancer; he tries to take care of her while she’s dying.

In one scene, she’s lying in bed in a cramped little apartment, hooked up to an IV, suffering horrible pain. Her pain makes him suffer. He’s talking to his granddaughter about their lives together and he says something like this (I’m totally paraphrasing): ‘She can’t die; she’s the only person who knows who I was when I was a boy.’

“He can’t stand to let this image of himself go. She has held on, all her life, through the raising of the kids, through poverty and struggle, to the ideals of the Russian Revolution — to the idea of liberty, freedom and peace. As she’s dying, she doesn’t talk about her husband of 60 years or her children, but instead, she sings the songs they sang about equality and fraternity that were the slogans of their fight before they fled to the States.”

— Julie Barak, professor of English at Colorado Mesa University



“I’ll limit my comments to ancient literature: The saddest story in the Bible to me is the Book of Job. It reminds us how much pointless suffering there is in the world and how confusing it can be when we experience it.

“According to Aristotle, the whole point of Greek tragedy was to evoke pity and fear, and Sophocles’ ‘Oedipus the King’ was his favorite play. I agree that the story of Oedipus is incredibly sad. Oedipus is an intelligent and well-meaning king who did his best to save his people, but in the end, it turns out he accidentally killed his own father and married his mother. Most sad stories contain a glimmer of hope, but there is no hope left for Oedipus. The only consolation he can think of is to tear out his own eyes so at least he doesn’t have to see the tragedy of his own life.”

— Jason Reddoch, assistant professor of English at Colorado Mesa University



“Well, I cannot think of the truly saddest book I have ever read, but I remember being really sad reading Walter Wangerin’s ‘The Book of Sorrows.’ It was really heartbreaking and unexpected after the triumphs of the previous book (‘The Book of the Dun Cow’). I was really saddened when the best character from the previous book who we all loved, Mundo Cani Dog, truly and actually did not come back. It was a real shock as he was one of those amazing characters that should never die.

— Joseph Sanchez, director of Mesa County Libraries

‘Song sung blue, everybody knows one’

Sad stories often lead to sad songs. Scott Davis, a Palisade musician and producer who also teaches music at Mount Garfield Middle School, has a lot of songs that he considers sad:

“Some of them have lyrics and some of them do not. Some reflect despair and pain. I believe that the ‘sadness quotient’ of a song is completely dependent on circumstances and frame of mind. Generally, sad songs occur in a minor key. And they don’t incorporate a banjo (old Steve Martin reference)!

“Sometimes, sad songs remind us of personal experiences and they aren’t sad to anyone else. They might only be referential to an event or person in our lives. Sometimes sad songs are just…sad. My wife has a sad spot for ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me’ by Bonnie Raitt. Not a particular tear-jerker, but it speaks to a pivotal moment in our relationship.

“Sad songs are sad because of where you are in your life and what is happening. It may be a lyric that speaks directly to you. For instance, ‘you left me and I want to quit everything’ or ‘I’m so lonesome I could cry.’ Or, it could be a lyric that meant something to you or a family member or loved one. Most times, it’s a combination of chord changes, harmonic progressions and lyrics.

“Sadness is a personal thing. And sad songs are beautiful because they speak to each individual personally, whether they were written to be sad or not. I still remember my mom crying to what I consider a celebratory song, but it reminded her of her father, who died when she was young and made her cry every time.

“Embrace the power and emotiveness of music. It is the reason for music. To touch our aesthetic selves. It brings out different feelings in everyone.”

But even though sadness is subjective, if you’re in the mood for a sad soundtrack while you read sad stories, consider:

■ “I Hung My Head,” Johnny Cash

■ “Creep,” Radiohead

■ “Yesterday,” The Beatles

■ “Stay with Me,” Lorraine Ellison

■ “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road,” Frank Sinatra

■ “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” George Jones

■ “Back to Black,” Amy Winehouse

■ “Between the Bars,” Elliott Smith

■ “Ain’t No Sunshine,” Bill Withers

■ “Danny Boy,” Bing Crosby

Aristotle wrote…

(Just a minute. Got something in the ol’ eyes. What’s that? Crying? Nope, it’s allergies.)

Anyway, Aristotle wrote that tragedy, as a dramatic art, serves its audience as catharsis. 
It purges the passions of fear and pity and is, in fact, a spiritual cleansing. The audience comes away exalted and with a greater understanding of the ways of men and gods.

(Hang on. Deep breath, deep breath. Dang cottonwoods.)

Which is dandy, a lucid explanation of what’s going on, heart- and head-wise, when everything veers 
south in a hurry. Unfortunately, Aristotle, that doesn’t bring the coon dog back to life, it doesn’t unmake the 
unthinkable choice and it certainly doesn’t uncrash the car.

(Does anyone have a tissue? Anyone?)

It brings to mind “The Fault in Our Stars,” John Green’s bestselling young adult novel that will premiere on movie screens June 6. It’s about the blossoming romance between teenagers Hazel and Augustus, who meet in a cancer support group, and it’s also about friendship and what it means to live fully (if briefly).


It is not an easy read, but it’s an excellent one, deserving of its place in the new pantheon of young adult literature. It also begs the question: This is for kids? But it’s so sad!

It joins a whole sub-category of literature that dwells in a puddle of tears, that draws sighs and breaks hearts, that even in adulthood elicits tears over memories of childhood reading.

Gail Yerbic, head of youth services for Mesa County Libraries, said that sadness in literature, especially youth literature, can help young readers know that they aren’t alone in going through tough times. It can be a catalyst for parents to talk about difficult topics, she said, and ultimately show a light shining through the darkness.

“I think children’s books are great because they can approach difficult subjects in an optimistic way,” said Trevor Adams, a youth services library assistant for Mesa County Libraries. “They can shed light on a subject that’s really sad and heavy and give kids hope for things being better in the future.”

Not that this in any way alleviates the stomping young hearts take when Old Dan and Little Ann… experience what happens to them in Wilson Rawls’ “Where the Red Fern Grows.” That’s just brutal.

And while the causes of sorrow may be situational and subjective, there are certain books whose pages are never anything but tear-soaked, herewith ranked on a scale of one to 10 tissues:

“Where the Red Fern Grows” by Wilson Rawls (1961)

Young Billy Coleman saves for two whole years to buy two coon hound puppies, which he names Old Dan and Little Ann. They roam the Ozarks together, enter the coon hunt contest and win a gold cup and catch the elusive ghost coon. Then a run-in with a mountain lion ends poorly and let us just say that dogs are as capable of love as humans.

Tissues: 11. Billy visits a… place (not to give anything away) and sees a red fern growing there, which according to Native American legend can only be planted by angels.

“Bridge to Terabithia” by Katherine Paterson (1977)

Shy Jess Aarons and bold Leslie Burke become friends, creating an imaginary kingdom called Terabithia. Leslie helps Jess find courage and everything is going great until one day, when something terrible happens while Jess away is touring art galleries with a teacher. It’s enough to put you off rope swings and creeks forever.

Tissues: 10. In the end, Jess lays some planks across the creek and takes his younger sister with him to Terabithia, telling her she’s the new queen. And if you can hear Jess’ voice telling you that the Terabithians are standing on tiptoe to see you, well… we’ll give you a minute.


“Sounder” by William H. Armstrong (1969)

A poor black sharecropper is accused to stealing a ham and during his arrest the family dog, Sounder, gets shot. The man ends up on a chain gang, his family suffers greatly, but Sounder comes home because the shot wasn’t fatal. But things do not go well at all when the man gets home. Like, at all.

Tissues: 12. And a correspondence:

Dear authors of children’s literature,

What the heck do you have against animals??!? And fathers!?! Good grief! And don’t even try pulling the ol” “but the son learned to read at the end so it’s OK” ploy. We’re not buying what you’re selling!




“Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes” by Eleanor Coerr (1990)

A little girl named Sadako, who was born in Hiroshima, Japan, becomes ill with “atom bomb disease,” or leukemia. She hears a legend that if she can fold 1,000 paper cranes then the gods will grant her a wish, and her wish is to be healthy again. She finishes the cranes, but…

Tissues: 10. And thanks for nothing, origami.


“The Yearling” by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1938)

Young Jody Baxter lives in post-Civil War Florida with his parents, Penny and Ora. His three siblings are dead and he finds companionship in a fawn he names Flag. Over the next year they are inseparable, but unfortunately Flag becomes a crop-trampling, fence-ruining nuisance and Jody’s parents make him deal with the problem.

Tissues: 11. How Jody must deal with the problem is not good.


“The Outsiders” by S.E. Hinton (1967)

Friends Johnny and Ponyboy get caught in the middle of the clash between the wealthy “socs” and rough-around-the-edges “greasers.” A bunch of tragic stuff happens, Johnny ends up with a broken back and just never mind, OK?

Tissues: 11. Because of this: “Stay gold, Ponyboy. Stay gold.”


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