Sunday, August 19, 2007

"What Came Before He Shot Her"--Elizabeth George

I'm really, really close to finishing Moby Dick, really. I'm also reading a book by Elizabeth George. In a post that I can't at this moment find, I talked about not liking her last book and this is a sequel. I was also afraid of reading it. The last book featured the death of Inspector Lynley's wife, shot on her doorstep. The perp. turned out to be a 12 year old boy. The police force wants to throw the book at him--one of their own,yada, yadda. That's about where that one ends. This one is exactly as the title says. I knew it was going to be sad and hard, because the ending is known. The sweet, sad little boy of the first chapter is going to end up shooting someone and facing a life in prison. Destroyed in some way or other.

I'm a little over a third of the way through and it is sad and hard, because this is such a doomed little boy, and George, whom I've criticized for the distance she places between the reader and characters has done a very good job of entering his mind, and the minds of the people around him. It is still too long and works too hard on authenticity. As an American who writes books set in London, she seems determined to show how much research she's done. She writes detailed descriptions of routes that people take. She works very hard to get the vernacular right. By contrast, the British Ruth Rendell, who's writing about the exact same portion of London manages to cram more story line into a book of half the length.

That said, this could turn out to be George's best book. Eleven year old Joel, his 15 year old sister and his 8 year old brother who has something mentally wrong with him--no one is sure what, are literally dumped on their aunt's doorstep when their grandmother decides to go back to Jamaica with her layabout boyfriend. Slowly it unfolds that their father was shot in the street in front of the boys. Their mother is in a mental hospital. Ness, the sister, is so filled with a rage that she skips school and quickly finds sex and drugs as a way to fill the emptiness she cannot articulate. There is a beautiful line about Ness having so little ability to assess her own state of mind that she mistakes anger for power, hurt for need. Joel has taken on all responsibilities--for his retarded brother, for the family happiness, for the world. To watch this 11 year old try desperately to make things right is heart wrenching. To know the end in store for him is nearly (for me) unbearable. His aunt tries to do the right thing, but she was not prepared for this either. He has one mentor in the community, but none of the characters can trust or communicate very well. At the mentor's encouragement he goes to a poetry event and writes his first raw poem. Last night I read about his feelings at getting the Poet with Potential award and I had to shut the book and cry. For everything he'll never have, for everything that so many children will not have. Not iPods and Nikes, but self-respect, dignity, a sense of place, a sense of childhood.

At the same time, in Boston, in the real world, a seven year old was shot and killed last month by a cousin with his older brother's gun. His older brother had promise, looked to be getting out of the gangs. He had promise, vivacious and friendly. All of the siblings have different fathers. All of the fathers are in jail or have been. Or are dead. The mother has never worked, was pregnant at 16 with a 15 year old's child. Has been in jail herself. A doomed family on whom thousands of dollars of taxpayer's money has been spent to try and save these children--to camps, to learning centers, counselors, etc. And now this little boy is dead.

I've been very poor in my life, and I've been in less than ideal living situations, but I've never had to live with the level of fear that these children face, everyday--in school, on the sidewalk, in their own homes. How do you live with that fear and manage to overcome it? Because it is fear that shapes every thug, every criminal. Fear at the most fundamental and earliest times. You never learn to express your feelings. You never learn coping mechanisms. You can't even articulate what you feel, only that you must do something or go mad. And if someone hands you drugs and guns at that moment. How do you say no?

I go mad when Conservatives dismiss these problems. "I never chose drugs or violence they say," but the question is not whether you have done more with your life, but whether you could have done more with their life. As it is lived, every moment.

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