They left us alone. Now what?
January 27, 2009 6:46 AM   Subscribe

I want to read fictional and/or true stories about people being put into positions of responsibility unexpectedly for extended periods of time and how they deal with it.

I was listening to "This American Life" and there are a category of stories on the show I am particularly drawn to. It's the stories of people being put into positions of responsibility and authority and how they deal with these situations.

I'm also interested in stories where employees have to cover for an absent boss/bosses.

Finally, stories of children being forced to live alone for extended periods of time while their parents are absent.

Examples of what I'm talking about are:

-From Episode 346: Act 2 about Clevins Brown

-Episode 334: Duty Calls

-Even though it's cheesy, Home Alone.

If these sorts of stories have a name, I'd like to know that as well.

posted by reenum to Media & Arts (37 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
You definitely want to read about Cincinnatus, then, which is just about the original story of the genre you describe.

Wikipedia article here. If you want to go to the library or Amazon, you can get Livy's Ab Urbe Condita the ancient (though not primary - none of those are extant) source. Penguin published the surviving fragments of Livy in a series of English volumes - I think the one that covers Cincinnatus' period is called Rome and Italy.
posted by CRM114 at 6:53 AM on January 27, 2009

hotel rwanda may be of interest to you.
a bit further off but very enjoyable is 'war reporting for cowards' by the hollywood correspondent of the times of london. he found himself unexpectedly sent to cover the second iraq war, a position he freely admits to being utterly unprepared for.

david kilcullen often writes about how relatively junior military personnel deal with extraordinary situations they are presented with. one could argue that the insurgents they face rise to occasions larger than those the average untrained militiaman is supposed to be dealing with.

finally, 'all the presidents men' is in essence about two young (and almost already fired in one case) reporters who rise to the occasion when opportunity presents itself. they weren't all alone but they sure were quite alone.
posted by krautland at 6:55 AM on January 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Finally, stories of children being forced to live alone for extended periods of time while their parents are absent.

Is it too obvious to suggest Lord of the Flies?
posted by afx237vi at 7:00 AM on January 27, 2009

Earth Star Voyager
posted by Kirklander at 7:04 AM on January 27, 2009

Cynthia Voigt's young adult novel Homecoming fits this bill exactly, as 13-year-old Dicey has to care for her three younger siblings when their single mother abandons the children. (Voigt won a Newbery Medal for Homecoming's sequel Dicey's Song.)
posted by pineapple at 7:05 AM on January 27, 2009

How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff
posted by kimdog at 7:06 AM on January 27, 2009

Truman by David McCullough. He had been vice-president for a few months, then FDR died after not telling him anything. Suddenly he had to decide whether or not to use a nuclear weapon. Can't get much more of a shock than that...
posted by j1950 at 7:06 AM on January 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Is sci-fi too far afield for you? The new version of Battlestar Galactica plays with this sort of thrust-upon responsibility all the time. Everyone in a position of power in that show is someone who was just lucky enough to survive when their superiors didn't.
posted by Ms. Saint at 7:34 AM on January 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seconding Homecoming. Also, there was a great, heartbreaking This American Life piece about a 15 year old kid who had to live alone when his mom went to a mental institution. I think the episode was actually called Home Alone.

As for people stepping into roles they have not been trained for - post-apocalyptic fiction is great for this. Battlestar Galactica (the new series) and The Stand spring to mind as especially good explorations of how society might function after the normal hierarchies are wiped away with most of the population.
posted by lunasol at 7:40 AM on January 27, 2009

Look in the genre of Vietnam War books. There's quite a few autobiographies written by former second lieutenants, fresh off the boat, taking command of a platoon. The Killing Zone by Frederick Downs would be one example.
posted by crapmatic at 7:40 AM on January 27, 2009

Best answer: Along the line of Home Alone, it's fairly common to have movies for and/or about kids where they start off on some sort of adventure and find themselves in deeper than they thought, leading to one or more of the kids rising to the occasion. I keep seeing the trailer for "Hotel for Dogs" and even though I haven't seen the movie it looks like it follows this formula. Let's start a hotel for stray dogs! Sure, how hard could it be! See, this is going great! Uh-oh, some problems are arising! I will give an inspiring speech and come up with some clever moves to save the day!

Other examples include Goonies, E.T., Kit: an American Girl, The Neverending Story.

On preview, the book The Postman is a good example in the post-apocalyptic genre.
posted by mikepop at 7:46 AM on January 27, 2009

Well, let me offer my experience. For a few years, a hobby of mine exploded into greater size and significance than I'd expected, which was great, but I had to recruit a fleet of volunteers to help, and found myself in a sober position of having to run it wisely and keep it all going. I knew nothing about management, and had, my entire life, recoiled from any sort of leadership role. But I was thrust into one.

It all happened fast and furious, and I seem to have risen to the occasion. I figured out how to run an operation, how to recruit and manage workers and get them to do good work, how to make good decisions, when to delegate, and when to veto the decisions of my delegatees. I didn't go to business school or read books. It's just that a heightened, fraught sense of panic engaged my creativity, eliciting a flow of unique solutions to the various problems occurring. This flow came about, and was acted upon, without any self-consciousness. Like the mother who doesn't think before hoisting with her own two arms the car pinning down her child, I don't think I could have done it if I'd thought about it - if I'd been burdened with self-awareness as these things played out.

In retrospect, the solutions created from my position of panic were sort of amazing and unconventional. I inadvertently, haplessly invented some new precepts of management and leadership. Still doesn't seem like "I" did it, though, so I can't really take credit. Really creative solutions - the "eurekas" - seem to come from somewhere else. I was just protecting my baby, and that called for figuring out how to manage, market, inspire, and all those other annoying-sounding verbs other people always used. And it happened.

If you're the least bit creative, your creativity flows when it's most needed...e.g. when you get thrust into a position of responsibility. That's what creativity is; that's what it's for. But you've also got to have some integrity - willingness to take necessary action when circumstance forces you to do so, even if you'd much rather back down. Integrity is what makes people miss out on fun stuff to take care of an ailing friend or relative. If your integrity makes you rise to occasions, your creativity will "find a way" to make things work.

Funny thing is that "you" are not part of any of that. Integrity and creativity happen outside the cognizing mind. They're drives from somewhere deeper. The more you (i.e. your chattery, nattering mind) interfere, the worse the results. But if you're really thrust into something, those drives take over automatically, if only 'cuz your mind's so paralyzed with fear and overwhelmedness. That's how it works.
posted by jimmyjimjim at 7:50 AM on January 27, 2009 [4 favorites]

Do comedies count? Because the hilarious Galaxy Quest is the first to come to mind. A bunch of washed up TV stars are suddenly responsible for saving a species of aliens.

The Last Unicorn may also fit the bill. Although it's of her own choosing, one unicorn who has never left her forest in all her millenia realizes that all the other unicorns in the world have mysteriously disappeared and takes responsibility for recovering them. It sounds like a kid's story, but it is far too complex and layered to really be for kids.

In Amulet, a pair of kids lose their single mother to a fantasy world and must go on a journey to save her. Again, not so much of a children's story (but not completely inappropriate for kids, either).

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events is a quirky, fantastical story about three recently orphaned children, although it is certainly a kid's book.

Does Oliver Twist count? He was already an orphan, but he runs away from a workhouse in the beginning and must survive on his own.

I'm also thinking of a great Doctor Who episode, The Empty Child, which features some street urchins making their way during WWII, but it's not the main theme of the episode.
posted by giggleknickers at 7:55 AM on January 27, 2009

The TV series "Upstairs Downstairs" explores this in many episodes, most notably in the period right before and during World War I. One subplot is about a middle-class woman who suddenly finds herself in charge or an aristocratic household; another is about a spoiled rich girl who, with very little training, becomes an army nurse. There are several episodes in which experienced servants get sick or incapacitated and junior servants have to take over.

"Dog Day Afternoon" is fits this theme.

"Hamlet" is the classic tale that fits.

"Lord of the Flies" is the anti-version.

I once saw an episode of ER (someone who is into the series will have to give details) in which all of the experienced doctors fell prey to some sort of sickness and a young intern (the one played by Noah Wiley) had to take over the whole hospital.
posted by grumblebee at 8:16 AM on January 27, 2009

The Boxcar Children is a classic in the kiddie-lit vein you mentioned. Also much of the first third of David Copperfield (supposedly reflects some of Dickens' own childhood experiences).

Lastly, the recent film The Queen does some dealing with the late aftermath of a situation similar to the one you describe, where a young/inexperienced person is suddenly forced to take on a huge amount of responsibility.
posted by Bardolph at 8:25 AM on January 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you happen to like well written British thrillers, this is a theme in several Dick Francis' books. Like To the Hilt, or Straight.
posted by ijsbrand at 8:32 AM on January 27, 2009

I, Claudius comes to mind. Fascinating book. Fantastic British television series.
posted by bristolcat at 8:37 AM on January 27, 2009

Kenneth Holden and the Department of Design and Construction ended up rather unexpectedly in charge of the WTC cleanup — the city's original emergency plans called for the Department of Sanitation to remove debris after a building collapse.
posted by Johnny Assay at 8:40 AM on January 27, 2009

Gone With The Wind, The Secret Garden, and A Little Princess come to mind.
posted by mynameisluka at 8:41 AM on January 27, 2009

Rilla, in L.M. Montgomery's eponymous novel has to look after a baby during WWI.
posted by brujita at 8:45 AM on January 27, 2009

Tom Clancy's Executive Orders.

I'm sorry.
posted by Joe Beese at 9:29 AM on January 27, 2009

how about that movie "trading places" with eddie murphy and dan akroyd?
posted by fancyoats at 9:35 AM on January 27, 2009

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh. Bonus if you also like historical fiction/stories about the sea/stories with complex female characters.
posted by jennyb at 10:01 AM on January 27, 2009

Eh, you could glance at the story of Tom Brady for kind of an example of this. He was a late draft pick thrust into a position of leadership as QB of the Patriots when Drew Bledsoe, the starting quarterback suffered a devastating injury that took him out the rest of the season.
posted by losvedir at 10:16 AM on January 27, 2009

Survival stories is a good area for you to look at. I had a great book that contained numerous tales of people stepping up to the plate and taking on responsibility for themselves and others making it through. There's also plenty of young people who have made it alone against astounding odds in this "genre". Examples include Steven Callahan, Juliane Köpcke, The Baileys, The Robertsons.

More of a seventies thing I guess, we have GPS and stuff now, but don't miss 11-year old Noris Villarreal.
posted by Iteki at 10:26 AM on January 27, 2009

Peter Glenville's Becket [Wikipedia], based on the Jean Anouilh play. "The play is a re-enactment of the conflicts between King Henry II [Peter O'Toole] and Thomas Becket [Richard Burton] as Becket, best friend to Henry II, ascends to power becoming the King’s enemy. Becket begins as a clever, but hedonistic, companion; as a result of being created Archbishop of Canterbury, he is transformed into an ascetic who does his best to preserve the rights of the church against the king's power."
posted by kirkaracha at 10:51 AM on January 27, 2009

Another Post Apocalyptic one- Into the Forest by Jean Hegland
posted by kimdog at 11:03 AM on January 27, 2009

This is a recurring theme in David Weber's Honor Harrington stuff...especially the earlier books where she's newer at being a Captain, and the short stories which are usually about exactly what you are talking about....a kid who has to save her brother's life, a brand new ensign who is suddenly in charge of an away party under stuff, total space opera.
posted by legotech at 12:04 PM on January 27, 2009

Best answer: This American Life - Act One. Working Class Hero Sandwich.

"Dawna Lentz was a new employee at Quiznos sub shop in Seattle when the franchise owners just gave up. They stopped buying supplies, stopped answering their phones. Soon, the restaurant began running out of staple ingredients, like cold cuts and bread. But Dawna needed the job. So she paid the other employees out of the cash register, and started scrounging to keep the place open."
posted by yeti at 12:18 PM on January 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Two Graham Greene short stories come to mind: "The Destructors," about a group of kids in post WWII London left alone and how they destroy an old man's house, and one of my favorite stories of all time, "A Discovery In The Woods" which is described on Amazon as "a group of strange children with short and uneven limbs who move like crabs decide that they should enter a new territory in search of blackberries. Thus they leave the confines of their village, Bottom, and they discover an enormous house resembling a giant stranded fish which seems to have been thrown up among the rocks to die. "
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 1:28 PM on January 27, 2009

The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver deals with a similar issue; a poor young woman (presumably 18 or so) from a small town sets off on a drive across America, and halfway there is literally handed a mute 3-year old girl on an American Indian reservation. The rest of the book is how she deals with sudden motherhood in a place where she has no existing ties, and it's really very well-written.
posted by sarahsynonymous at 2:52 PM on January 27, 2009

Cynthia Voight's novel Homecoming is the story of a family of four children whose mother has a breakdown and unexpectedly abandons them. Terrified of being put into foster care and separated, the oldest daughter, a 12-year old tomboy named Dicey, basically pulls herself together and walks her three younger siblings across an entire state to their grandmother's house. It's really good writing and the characters are sharply drawn and believable. The sequel, Dicey's Song, won a Newberry Medal.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 2:55 PM on January 27, 2009

Oh my god, Pineapple already wrote the exact same comment. Sorry.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 2:56 PM on January 27, 2009

heh, I was scrolling Recent Activity and was all, "I don't remember mentioning the trip to Gran's... oh."
posted by pineapple at 4:20 PM on January 27, 2009

also, "my side of the mountain" and "julie of the wolves" by julie craighead george
posted by fancyoats at 5:23 PM on January 27, 2009

Donn Pearce, who wrote 'Cool Hand Luke' and also much of the screenplay for it, recently wrote a book entitled "Nobody Comes Back: A Novel of the Battle of the Bulge" based upon a fictional character who is sent to the front line from boot camp the night before 'The Battle of The Bulge' started.

It's a gripping tale, and a horror show -- this kid is 16, he lied to get into the army, and now here he is in the very heart of the complete insanity that war can be. A memorable character, written pretty dang well IMO, and in a few others opinions also; while the book is not well-known, those who do know of it seem to like it, fourteen reviews on Amazon and it's five star, etc and etc.

If you're interested, I've a few stories of my own where I've been 'tossed into it' and one of those in particular is noteworthy; if you're interested shoot me a MeFi mail...
posted by dancestoblue at 8:21 PM on January 27, 2009

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