During the 1980’s, Tufts University Professor David Elkind wrote a groundbreaking book The Hurried Child. In it, he made the powerful argument that many of today’s children are put under an untenable amount of pressure to grow up too quickly. One example of this pressure (and we’ve all seen this I think) is media hype that presents children as ‘little adults’ and sometimes even sexualises them. Another is the tendency (although this certainly isn’t the case all the time) for parents, especially single parents, to treat their children more as confidants than as children. All of this, Elkind argues, can do real damage to children, and serves to rob them of those crucial years of childhood development. The book’s been through several editions and is still widely read, which suggests among other things that these problems haven’t gone away.
It’s not always easy to clearly define the boundary between responsibility that helps a child develop important skills, and responsibility and pressure that isn’t appropriate for children. I think we’d all agree that it’s beneficial for young people to learn to, say, be responsible for their schoolwork or their spending money. But, Elkind argues, pre-teens aren’t ready for adult pressure such as sexual attention, and they’re not served well by the enormous pressure that’s sometimes put on them to ‘be the best,’ such as you sometimes see at sport events. There are plenty of children too who are expected to help provide family income and this, Elkind argues, also hurries children.
This issue crosses socioeconomic lines too. Whether or not you agree with each of Elkind’s arguments (and I do recommend the book), it really does seem that many children in all social classes are pressured to grow up quickly. It’s true in real life, and we see that plot thread in crime fiction too.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes relies on a group of such children: the Baker Street Irregulars. Led by a boy named Wiggins, they’re a group of street children who help him with his investigations. They know London very, very well, and can often observe and get information without calling attention to themselves, so they’re quite useful to Holmes. Conan Doyle doesn’t portray them as living very unhappy lives, but it’s interesting to see how even in this more ‘clean scrubbed’ picture of pressured childhood, the boys respond very positively to Holmes’ leadership and interest in them.
Kate Grenville’s The Secret River tells the story of London bargeman William Thornhill. In 1806, when he’s caught stealing a load of wood, he, his wife Sal and their children are transported to Australia. There, they do their best to make lives for themselves. Thornhill comes to love the land he’s moved to, and therein lies the problem. Other people of course have been living on that land for millennia, and there are real cultural and other conflicts between the new arrivals and the people who’ve always been there. Thornhill would like to resolve matters peacefully, but that view is by no means uninanimous, so some terrible crimes are committed. The first part of this novel tells of Thornhill’s early life in London. Born to a very poor family, he soon learns that the family will not survive if the children don’t do as much as they can, as early as they can, to earn money. In that society, it’s taken in a matter-of-fact way, and allowing children to actually be children is a luxury that the poor simply cannot afford.
In Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine, DCI Tom Barnaby and his assistant Gavin Troy look into the murder of financial advisor Dennis Brinkman. At first Brinkman’s death was thought to be a terrible accident, as his body was found under one of the ancient machines he collected. But his friend Benny Frayle is sure that he was killed, and won’t rest until his death is investigated. At first Barnaby and Troy aren’t convinced that this is a murder, but then there’s another death. Self-styled medium Ava Garrett dies of poison after a séance in which she saiid things about Brinkman’s murder that only the killer would be likely to know. Now Barnaby and Troy are faced with two murder cases. In one of the sub-plots of this story, we meet Ava Garrett’s pre-teen daughter Karen, who has had to grow up far too fast. They live in a not-too-well-kept council house along with Ava’s lodger Roy Priest, who’s also seen too much for his nineteen years. Ava is not a physically abusive parent, but she is self-absorbed and irresponsible. So it’s left to Karen and, when he can help out, Roy, to do the ‘adult work’ of managing the household. That’s not the reason for the murders, but it’s a clear example of a hurried child.
We also see one in Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory. Gideon Davies has always had a rare musical ability and has become a world class violinist. One terrifying day though, he finds that he can’t play note. So he begins to work with a psychotherapist to get to the bottom of his musical block. In the meantime, his mother Eugenie is killed one night in what looks like a hit-and-run accident. But as Inspector Lynley and Sergeant Havers soon learn, this was no accident. As the novel goes on, we see how that death is related to Gideon’s inability to play, and how both are related to a long-ago family tragedy. Part of the novel shows what the Davies family has been like, and how Gideon was pressured from a very early age to grow up because of his musical ability. And that pressure has a lot to do with the kind of person Gideon is now.
Timothy Hallinan’s Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty series, which takes place mostly in Bangkok, features American ex-pat Rafferty, a travel writer who is also fairly good at finding people who don’t want to be found. He’s married to Rose, a former bar girl, now the owner of an aparment cleaning company, who herself had to grow up too fast. He’s also in the process of adopting Miaow, a former street child who’s seen more during her childhood than anyone should have to see in a lifetime. Being forced to grow up too fast has had a profound effect on Rose and on Miaow and through them, on Rafferty. Although he does his best to provide a good life for both, there’s a hardness to them, especially Miaow, that comes from not having had the chance to be a child.
In Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark, we are introduced to fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman. She is academically gifted, and her dreams go far beyond the limits of her home in Alexandria, on New Zealand’s South Island. Her teacher, Ilsa Klein, has high hopes for her as well, and considers her a very promising student. Then everything begins to fall apart. Serena stops coming to class regularly, and when she is there, she doesn’t participate. It’s clear that something is wrong, and Ilsa wants to help, so she alerts the social welfare authorities. That turns out to be a mistake, as Serena’s mother is deeply resentful of that ‘interference.’ Then Serena disappears. Her sister Lynnette ‘Lynnie’ travels from Wellington, where she lives, back to Alexandria to help in the search. To her it’s shocking that three weeks have gone by and nothing has been done to find Serena. As the story moves along, we see that Serena has had to grow up too fast, and so have her siblings. In part it’s because of the family’s dysfunction; in part it’s because of the family’s socioeconomic situation. There are other factors too. And they play a role in the events that happen in the novel.
There are a lot of other crime novels in which we meet children who are forced to grow up before they’re ready. It’s very hard on them, and certainly doesn’t aid in helping them to become fulfilled, productive adults. There’s an eloquent commentary on it in Denise Mina’s Garnethill, which takes place in Glasgow. In this scene, protagonist Maureen ‘Mauri’ O’Donnell is visiting her friend Leslie. Here’s what Leslie has to say about a neighbour’s child:
‘‘That’s wee Magsie,’ said Leslie. ‘She’s three and a half. Aren’t ye, wee teuchie?’
Wee Magsie kept her skirt over her face and giggled shyly, rocking from side to side.
‘Yes,’ said the biggest girl, who could only have been seven. ‘I’m her big sister and I’ve to look after her today.’…
‘See that?’ said Leslie. ‘They’re wee mammies before they stop being kids.’’
Which novels with hurried children have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Soul Asylum’s Runaway Train.