Laura Lippman’s descriptions of life in the inner-city are harsh, as they highlight the details of the dysfunctional family and the conditions that result from a lack of care for oneself. Is this portrayal accurate, or is it just a stereotype that agrees with other depictions of city life?
The families in Butchers Hill are wrought with a lack of concern for family members, the inability to have a traditional family, and substance abuse. The first description of a family that Lippman gives highlights the possibility for children to run amuck without their parents’ knowledge, free to cause destruction: “There were five of them, all foster kids living with that young Christian couple. Nice as could be, well intentioned but they couldn’t do a damn thing with these kids. Couldn’t even keep them in nice clothes. Just kept taking kids in and watching helplessly as they ran wild” (Lippman 3-4). The Nelsons’ foster children, although taken into their home with the hopes that the family could provide them with stability, are not given the guidance and discipline that they need early in life. Beale blames the children, saying that they could not be tamed, but one also has to contemplate the role of the parents and their efforts to teach the children that they need to show self-control. Instead, the children are released to the dangers that the city may hold, such as death as a punishment for their actions: “[Beale] could have caught them, if he wanted. Instead, he fired again, then again, the gun a living thing in his hand, separate and apart from him…The littlest one stumbled and fell, and now the skinny one was screaming, high and thin like a girl” (Lippman 4-5). The Nelsons took the children into their care, but did not ardently attempt to guide the children in their endeavors. They state that they made great efforts to assist the children, and attribute their lack of discipline to the school system: “If George and I have learned anything from our…missteps over the years, it’s that it’s no use rearing children right, only to send them into schools where our teaching is undone” (Lippman 67). The Nelsons’ lack of experience with integrating their foster children into their family and with giving them the discipline that they need contributed to their failure with the children that destroyed Beale’s car.
This lack of a traditional family setting is echoed in Keisha Moore’s situation in which she is left to care for her nephews because her brother, their father, abandoned their family: “No, these are my brother’s children. / Where’s your brother? / Gone.” (Lippman 54). There is no male figure present to guide the boys as they age, and Keisha’s care for them is inadequate as the reader can see when Tess comments on the fact that no one took the time to remove their shoes as they slept (Lippman 57) and ignores their cries as they sleep (Lippman 56). Although Keisha is attempting to help her sister-in-law with her children, she does not care for them as much as she cares for her own daughter, Laylah, as she takes the time to change her, to answer to her cries, and to nestle her nose in her neck (Lippman 54-56). Keisha is unable and unwilling to care for the boys properly just as her sister, Tonya, is unable to care for herself as she succumbs to the vice of substance abuse: “She might have looked younger, too, if not for crack cocaine, which had cooked her body down until it was nothing more than a little skin stretched over some long, knobby bones. Or perhaps her habit was heroin” (Lippman 52). Tonya does not take the time to realize that her actions will only lead to her self-destruction and thus to another sorrow that Keisha must bear. Even Keisha does not take the time and effort to confront her sister about her problem in the hopes of reforming her ways. None of the families in the inner-city of Baltimore is depicted in a positive light in that they are all the victims of lack of care.
I know a myriad of families in the Baltimore area, some mirroring the situations of the families that Lippman portrays, yet all differing from them in that these families recognize from the beginning that the parents must play an active part in their children’s lives; they recognize that their children must be taught to look forward to their futures as being able to contribute to the growth of the city. On the other hand, I also know families where the children are not disciplined and thus have had experiences with drugs, with promiscuous behavior, and with violence, sometimes involving weapons. The children of these families, however, have expressed to me their desires to continue their education where they let it falter in order to acquire steady employment. They recognize that they need to escape their cycles of destructive behavior, and yet they still seem to revert back to it. I hope that Lippman’s portrayals become mere stereotypes as the younger generations learn that they need to take an active role in their futures in order to ensure their success.