One of the most difficult things to do, especially for people who’ve been betrayed, is to learn to trust (or trust again). After all, why should you trust if you’ve already seen what can happen? The tension caused by the instinct not to trust, whether or not it’s warranted, can add an awful lot to a novel. And it is a natural human reaction, so it can also add a layer of credibility to a character. There are myriad novels that make use of this plot thread; I’ll just mention a few.
In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Tom Robinson, who is Black, is accused of raping Mayella Ewell, who is White. He says that he is innocent, but that doesn’t count for much in the small-town Alabama community where he lives. Robinson has no reason at all to trust his lawyer Atticus Finch, if you think about it. Finch is White, and Robinson has learned the hard way to be wary of Whites. What’s more, Finch is well-connected in the town. If he takes up an unpopular cause like Robinson’s, and gives it more than ‘lip service,’ his law practice (and perhaps much more) is at risk. And yet, the only way to go about this case is for Finch and Robinson to trust each other. It’s awkward at times, but once each man is able to have some faith in the other, the case moves forward.
Malla Nunn’s work discusses similar issues of trust. This series ‘stars’ Emmanuel Cooper, who lives and works in 1950s South Africa, when apartheid was strictly enforced. Even before those laws, there was mistrust among the different ethnic groups in that country; in this series, we see how that mistrust has hardened as a result of the laws. Cooper is White, and a police officer. So it’s easy to see why non-Whites don’t trust him at all, at least at first. Why should they? He is also not completely trusted by the Afrikaners he encounters, because his background is English. As he investigates cases, Cooper has to work very hard to negotiate the deep layers of mistrust he encounters. It takes time, but he demonstrates that he can be trusted. And slowly, he develops contacts in several different ethnic groups. He’s able to penetrate the superficial ‘face’ that people put on in the presence of those they cannot trust.
We also see the slow development of a kind of trust in Giles Blunt’s Forty Words For Sorrow. When a body is discovered in an abandoned mine on Windigo Island, John Cardinal of the Algonquin Bay (Ontario) Police investigates. To his dismay, the body is identified as thirteen-year-old Katie Pine, who disappeared five months earlier. Cardinal took the lead in searching for her, but wasn’t able to find her. Now he has the thankless job of informing her mother Dorothy that her body has been discovered. His task is made all the more difficult because he wasn’t able to find her daughter until it was far too late. As if that wasn’t enough to make Dorothy mistrust him, there’s another barrier. Cardinal is White, and the Pines are Ojibwa. So Dorothy has very little reason to trust that he will make her case a priority, or that he can be taken at his word. In the end, Cardinal does find out what happened to Katie. It doesn’t make things all fine again, but it justifies some trust in him.
Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest is half White/half Aboriginal. She is trusted and accepted among her mother’s people at the Moonlight Downs encampment, and that helps to give her a place to belong. That matters, too, because in Diamond Dove (AKA Moonlight Downs) and Gunshot Road, we see that she is not trusted, and certainly not respected, amongst several members of the White community. The feeling is most definitely mutual, as Tempest has seen little reason to trust any of the ‘whitefellers.’ In both novels, members of both groups have to learn to trust each other in order to get cases solved. Tempest has to learn that there are some Whites, including her boss Tom McGillivray, who are trustworthy and in whom she can have faith. In turn, her White counterparts have to learn that Tempest can be trusted to do her job as an ACPO (Aboriginal Community Police Officer).
And then there’s Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective. In one plot thread of that novel, Preeti and Basanti, two young girls from India’s Bedia community, embark on what they hope will be a lucrative adventure. Their families have been paid considerable money, in exchange for which they’ve agreed to become part of the dhanda, one name given to India’s sex trade. They’re both hoping that if they can earn enough from a few years in the trade, they’ll be able to return to their villages and support their families. Things go very, very wrong when they are sent to Scotland, where their services are bought by dangerous people. Once they arrive, they are separated. Basanti manages to escape, and goes looking for her friend, but Preeti has disappeared. Basanti learns that the body of a young woman has been discovered in the sea, and that the victim is most likely Preeti. Basanti’s search for answers leads her to oceanographer Calladh ‘Cal’ McGill, who is an expert on tide patterns. He, too, is interested in the discovery of the body and has gathered a great deal of information about it. In order to trace Preeti’s murder back to her killers, Basanti is going to have to learn to trust Cal, something that’s not easy for her, given what she’s been through. And Cal is going to have to trust this enigmatic young woman. In the end, they are able to work together and get some answers.
In all of these examples, there is every good reason for lack of trust. The only way for these characters to get beyond that barrier is to demonstrate – not just with words, but with sincere action – that they are trustworthy.
The terrible murders in Charleston, South Carolina have got me thinking about this issue of trust and mistrust. The murders themselves are of course, horrible. There is no justification for them, and there are no words, even for a writer, to adequately capture the awful reality of what happened. I hope that the victims’ families and friends are at least a bit comforted by the fact that millions of people, including me, stand with them at this time.
Along with standing by those who mourn, I think we need to consider where we go from here. Tears and sorrow are a part of it all, and they are important. But they are not enough. An already-fragile trust was shattered. Now, at least in my opinion, we need to take proactive, meaningful steps – steps that go beyond rhetoric – to deserve trust again. It will be awkward, difficult and painful. It will require soul-searching that will hurt. But in the end, it may spare us something else like this. I hope so.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Billy Joel song.