What Came Before He Shot Her, by Elizabeth George, started out as another of her usual pithy and intellectual approaches to a topic. Great plot, unbeatable character development. I was engrossed, until about half way through. Then, she subtly added elements that made me see the story as more than a novel.
The plot revolves around a black English family whose mother goes insane and Grandma–who agrees to raise her grandchildren–finds poverty and renewed parenthood doesn’t agree with her and leaves them with her second daughter. This fortyish woman’s efforts to raise them while she tries to pursue her own life drag both her and them down. Gradually, despite her best efforts and George’s portrayal of the kids as pretty good (except for the oldest), they get into trouble with the police. Each time it happens, their Aunt refuses to level with the police because they are white and she doesn’t trust them and rejects any assistance they offer. The police and child advocates sound reasonable, but then, I’m white so maybe I heard what I wanted to.
The first few times she bulled forward on her own, it got by me as a plot mechanism–to build the trauma/drama. Maybe it was a family thing, something from the black aunt’s background rather than a cultural trait. But finally, it became so insidious I couldn’t ignore it. The black children and adults had so little trust for the white authority figures, they refused help to their own detriment. Not surprisingly, the good kids ended up in jail and their lives were over. In fact, if you follow Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lyndley stories, these are the kids who ended up killing the Inspector’s wife in a previous novel.
It left me feeling strangely guilty. What have we done to African-Americans (in this case, African-British) to make them so distrust us. And then, a hundred pages into my guilt, I tired of feeling guilty. The white characters did nothing wrong—and I suppose the blacks didn’t either. But the black family had no idea how to help themselves. I don’t think most white families would either, so it’s nothing to do with guilt or fault, but preparation to be an adult. I am quite fatigued from always being blamed for other races’ problems. I am not that powerful. I refuse to apologize for making hard choices early in my life that resulted in whatever success I have achieved. I am a teacher, so obviously I’d be thrilled to help others achieve their own personal success, but somewhere along the line, personal responsibility must kick in.
In fact, as I get older, I think it’s less about race and more about people. I think race–and being female, and any number of other qualities that make us different from those around us–serve as a convenient scapegoat for failure. I don’t use them any more, even though I’m sure my inability to rise to the position of CEO is because of the glass ceiling I’ve hit my head against over and over (she says, tongue in cheek).
I stopped reading the book. I read to learn, to educate myself, to relate to others, to feel better about the world. This book no longer brought me any of those benefits.