Sometimes it Feels Like You and Me Against the World*

One of the important and far-reaching social changes of the last fifty years has been in our views of single parenthood. Today millions of people raise children without a spouse or partner and not because they were widowed. Single parenthood has become an everyday fact of life in many countries and it’s interesting to look back and see how our views of it have evolved. Just a quick glance at a few crime fiction novels shows how society’s attitudes have developed over the decades.

In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air) for instance, we meet Elise Grandier. She is maid to Marie Morisot, who does business as a moneylender under the name of Madame Giselle. One afternoon, Madame Giselle is en route from her home in Paris to London when she suddenly dies. It’s not long before it’s established that she was poisoned. Hercule Poirot is on the same flight, and he works with Chief Inspector James ‘Jimmy’ Japp and French authorities to find out who the murderer is. At one point, Poirot interviews Elise to see if she can shed any light on her mistress’ murder. Since she was not on the plane, she isn’t a suspect, but Poirot thinks she may be helpful. As they talk, he discovers the reason for her fierce loyalty to Madame Giselle. Years earlier, Elise had a child out of wedlock. At that time, the only real choice she had was to go away, have the child and return after the child had been given up for adoption. Madame Giselle took her in and was good to her and Elise has never forgotten that. While that small story thread is not the motive for the murder, it does give us a glimpse of the attitudes of the day towards unwed parenthood.

Rex Stout’s Champagne For One was written approximately twenty-five years after Death in the Clouds, and in it we see some differences in the way single parenthood is portrayed. In that novel, Archie Goodwin is persuaded to attend a dinner party at the home of wealthy and influential Louise Robilotti. Among other charities she supports is Grantham House, a home for unwed mothers. The goal of this institution is to give these young women a place to live until they have their babies and then support them until they find husbands or jobs. Mrs. Robilotti takes a special interest in Grantham House and every year, she invites a select few of its residents to her dinner party. This year, one of the Grantham House invitees is Faith Usher. During the dinner, one of the other residents Rose Tuttle tells Goodwin that Faith has brought cyanide with her and intends to commit suicide. At first Goodwin doesn’t believe her, but not long afterwards, Faith actually does die of what turns out to be cyanide poisoning. Everyone is convinced that she made good on her threat and committed suicide. But Goodwin isn’t convinced. So, despite a great deal of pressure from the Robilotti family and the police, he starts to investigate. And in the end, he discovers who really killed Faith Usher and why. This novel doesn’t exactly portray these unwed mothers in the most positive of lights. They are still represented as needing to be redeemed if that’s the word. But it is interesting to see how by the late 1950’s, there was at least more acceptance that sometimes young women become pregnant even if they are not married.

In Wendy James’ The Mistake, we meet Jodie Evans Garrow. She’s the wife of successful attorney Angus Garrow, who’s even being spoken of as the city’s next mayor. She’s got two healthy children and by all accounts, a good life. Then through sheer accident, her daughter Hannah is taken to the same Sydney hospital where Jodie herself gave birth to another child in 1986. A nurse who was there at the time remembers Jodie and her baby Elsa Mary and starts to ask questions about what happened to the child. Her questions have devastating consequences for the Garrow family when an investigation is opened. Everyone wants to know what happened to the baby. Jodie claims she gave the child up for adoption, but no adoption records have been found. As the story gets more and more attention, Jodie becomes a pariah to most people, who begin to suspect that she might have been responsible for the baby’s disappearance. As the details of what really happened in 1986 unfold we get a sense of what life was like at that time for unwed parents. At the time Elsa Mary was born, Jodie got a lot of sympathy – more than she would have a few decades earlier. She got support and there was an expectation that she would tell her parents and the baby’s father and all would be well. Jodie is not from an upper-class family, and what’s interesting is that that is more of a ‘black mark’ against her than is the fact that she got pregnant without being married.

Today it’s not at all uncommon for parents to be single. In both real life and crime fiction it’s taken in a very matter-of-fact way. For instance, Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ The Boy in the Suitcase features Sigita Ramoskiene, the Lithuanian single mother of three-year-old Mikas. Her life is by no means luxurious, but all is well enough until the terrible day when Mikas is abducted. When it’s clear that he’s not with his father, Sigita is terrified that something awful has happened to him and she goes on a frantic search for him. That’s how her path crosses the path of Nina Borg, a Copenhagen volunteer who’s made a frightening discovery: a little boy, drugged and dazed but alive, locked in a suitcase. It’s soon clear that the child Nina found is Sigita’s son Mikas, and each in a different way, the two women try to find out who abducted Mikas and why. Throughout this novel, the fact that Sigita is a single mother is not a major issue. She’s not regarded as ‘not quite good enough’ because she isn’t married and her character is painted quite sympathetically.

The same might be said of Anthony Bidulka’s Ethan Ash, who runs Ash House, a Saskatoon ‘frat house for the senior set.’ Ethan is the single father of Simonette, who goes by the name of Simon. When Bidulka’s sleuth PI Russell Quant meets Ash, he’s attracted and in Aloha Candy Hearts he and Ash begin a relationship. Ash’s devotion to Simon is real and he is portrayed believably and sympathetically. In the novels in which he features, his status as a single father is dealt with in a very matter-of-fact way. Certainly it doesn’t detract from the way others see him, especially Quant.

There are several sleuths, too, who are single parents. For instance Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway is the single mother of Kate. Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch is the single father of Maddie, and was the child of a single mother. There are a lot of other examples too of single parents in crime fiction that space doesn’t allow me to mention. I’m sure I’ve not mentioned the ones you like best. So help me out and fill in the gaps I’ve left.

It’s never been easy to be a single parent. It still isn’t. But it is heartening (at least to me) to see that today’s attitudes about single parenting have evolved by and large from punitive to supportive.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Kenny Ascher and Paul Williams’ You and Me Against the World, made popular by Helen Reddy. Factoid you probably aren’t interested in but I’ll tell you anyway: Reddy’s daughter Traci has a spoken part in that recording of the song.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Agnete Friis, Anthony Bidulka, Elly Griffiths, Lene Kaaberbøl, Michael Connelly, Rex Stout, Wendy James

12 responses to “Sometimes it Feels Like You and Me Against the World*

  1. Margot: Gail Bowen’s character, Joanne Kilbourn, is a “conventional” single parent in the context of her biological children in that she is a widow but less conventional in raising Taylor, the daughter of a deceasd friend, and then she complicates everything by getting married again.

    I appreciate you mentioning Ethan Ash doing a fine job of raising his daughter. Referring to Ethan made me think of Mark Richard Zubro’s character, Paul Turner, who in The Truth Can Get You Killed was raising 2 sons 15 years ago. I cannot think of reading an earlier book featuring gay parents.

    • Bill – You know, I thought of mentioning Joanne Kilbourn in this post. As you say, after her first husband’s death she is a single mother. And by including Taylor and later marrying again she creates an innovative blended family. You’re making me think that I ought to consider doing a post about blended families. That might be an interesting topic. So thanks for the idea.
      And yes, Zubro’s Paul Turner does a terrific job of raising his sons Brian and Jeff. I’m glad you mentioned them because they’re a great example of the changes in our attitudes, and I didn’t include them here as I meant to do.

  2. kathy d.

    What an excellent topic few would find at other blogs. However, seeing how society has grown more accepting of single parenthood through crime fiction is an interesting way of showing this phenomenon. In my city there are lots of single mothers; it seems to be accepted, unlike the 1950s when, as a friend tells me, two “unwed” high school friends were forced by social pressure and mores to give up their babies. How cruel! (This was a cause for madness in an episode of PBS’ Call the Midwife.)
    Always like to see social mores change through crime fiction. And Ruth Galloway portrays this social change well, happy a single mother with a beautiful baby girl, teaching, sleuthing, taking care of Kate, and having friends to help out. No one has a problem with this, except perhaps the known but not known father and his spouse.
    There are different social attitudes towards divorced single parents and those who choose that situation when single, but as seen by Ruth Galloway, it can be fine these days to choose single motherhood.
    Good development as there are so many single parents today.

    • Kathy – Thanks 🙂 – And I am very happy too that today’s society is by and large much more welcoming to single parents regardless of why they are single. It is a step in my opinion towards a better society. It is tragic that your friend’s friends were forced to give up their children. Choosing adoption is one thing. Being forced to give up one’s child is quite another. And I agree completely that Elly Griffith’s Ruth Galloway is a well-drawn example of a single parent. As you say, she has friends who help her, she manages to juggle parenting and sleuthing and her career, and she is portrayed sympathetically. A far cry from the days of ‘homes for wayward girls’…

  3. kathy d.

    Yes. I concur completely. It’s a good step forward for society to accept single motherhood, although some old dinosaurs don’t. And, true, adoption can be a very good solution, if it’s by choice, for everyone involved.
    I do so like Ruth Galloway’s attitude and those of her friends.

    • Kathy – I think there’ll always be people who don’t accept social change like single parenthood but as you say, it’s an important step that most of our society does. And that really is beautifully reflected in Ruth Galloway and other characters like her.

  4. Yes agree with Kathy above that it is great that single parents are no longer stigmatised. Ruth Galloway is a nice example as she was clearly entering into her forties single and has suddenly had a child. It was a nice touch and I gasped when I read it.

    • Sarah – Oh, well-said. It was a very nice evolution both of the series and of Ruth Galloway’s character. She was already interesting to me before becoming a mother, but that’s just added another dimension to her. And yes, I like it too that single parents no longer have to fight social battles as well as face the challenges they already have. I think it’s a very healthy development in our society.

  5. Margot I have been away for a few days so just catching up with your posts. What about Danglard in the Fred Vargas books, who from memory is a single father of five!
    We must not forget the challenges faced by the relatives of single mothers, many of whom could not continue to bring up their children without the assistance of grandparents and friends. We should definitely not return to the days of “homes for wayward girls” but lessons in responsibility for wayward fathers might be a good idea.

    • Norman – Nice to see you 🙂 – I hope you had a good trip. Thanks for reminding me of Danglard – he’s a great example of a single father. And you’ve reminded me I must spotlight one of Fred Vargas’ novels. And you are so right about the networks of relatives and friends that single parents need. Very often, grandparents, friends, aunts and others take on extra responsibility and they deserve more than a little credit for that. Nicely made point too about the needs for both parents to accept responsibility. That point actually deserves a post of its own; I may do that at some point.

  6. Champagne for One is a favorite Rex Stout book for me, and it was interesting seeing the attitude of the times. I was a big Helen Reddy fan and loved that song. This is an entertaining post.

    • Tracy – Thank you 🙂 – I’m glad you enjoyed it. Champagne For One is a good ‘un, I think. And part of the reason for that is, as you say, that it shows us the attitudes of the times. There’s also of course the fact that it’s a good solid mystery. And you know, I’ve always like that Helen Reddy song too.

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