Rowling’s Casual Vacancy is more Lord of the Flies than Hogwarts. And the adults conniving and politicking are worse than Trollope’s rivalries and self-serving inhumanities. When she decided to write an adult novel, she didn’t do it by halves. There is evil, stupidity and cruelty in her world: yes, in Harry Potter too, but that was a degree removed by fantasy, and Good triumphed over Evil in a mythic way we don’t see in everyday life.
And the character I cared for most, dies. Much more poignantly than the reality of death in a noble cause that we see in Harry Potter.
Rowling may now be a millionaire and successful, but she knows the scramble to get by of the middle class, and the desperation of some council estates. I grew up poor, but near an area that I was forbidden to go to to play, because it was “rough” which in those days meant mostly drink and fights. Nothing like the utter desperation of the drug-plagued Fields of this book. I see throughout this book, the personality of the author who famously has not sheltered her now-large income by offshore investments or residence, but is proud to pay taxes to help those who need help, as she once did. Nor does she try to categorize those who are “worthy” of help from the “freeloaders” To my mind the biggest freeloaders are found among the rich who can wangle perfectly legal ways of getting government subsidies and at the same time minimizing taxes.
I have always been ambivalent about taxes, especially in the US as so much of what we pay goes to military spending. One time during the Vietnam War I taped 30 pieces of silver (dollars) to my 1040, with red coloring too, in protest that I have to pay for what my conscience says is evil. I have come to terms with not being able to designate what my taxes support, though, because human needs are so underfunded. I concentrate on contributing to Head Start and Food Stamps in my mind, and try to make our charitable donations lean to justice and the needs of the poor.
The small town of the book has a spectrum of wealthy to poor, coping to not-coping ( that is not the same spectrum,) likable and infuriating. It is such a microcosm of British society. As we see the “real” people behind the labels, we are also reminded that a case history does not show us people’s struggles, and even when we think we know someone, we don’t understand from the inside. Besides, so many of the needy are children, who need all the help society can give. Not to mention the financial benefits of intervention before problems become extreme.
One of the elements of British life that I appreciated when my grandson was born there, was the network of home visits and nurses who keep an eye on babies before the parents’ possible problems escalate. In the book, one of the plot elements is the possible closing of a methadone clinic: so short-sighted. My daughter in England has friends who work with at risk families in different ways, as one of the characters in the book does. So over worked in such a difficult job! There are obvious bureaucratic problems, as in any system, but more help is clearly needed to help vulnerable families and individuals. When I worked with children in care, I became less convinced that removing children from their families was anything other than a final and unsatisfactory option. Rowling’s children are not little angels or Tiny Tim, though. The school scenes are harrowing- she knows what a not-very-good- comprehensive can be like. The cruelty and bullying and lack of empathy and obliviousness to consequences are assurance that these young people will grow up as damaged and conflicted as their parents.
In fact, I learned from the end notes that Rowling has started and given funds to an organization, Lumos, to help children not be institutionalized, believing that extensive help and even fostering is more helpful to children than growing up even in kindly institutions, such as the ones I worked in. Lumos (a name from Harry Potter) is worth looking up on their website. It helps children and those who are working with them in Britain and the especially eastern Europe, which used to have many more children in “orphanages”, though hardly any are in fact orphans. I so admire her for her work, her caring and her giving.