A major social issue that is present in Sebold's The Lovely Bones is the manifestation of grief and loss. Susie's disappearance and death is obviously a tragedy for her family and friends, but afterwards they must all deal with her murder. Susie's parents Jack and Abigail have a particularly difficult time doing this, which to an extent is understandable; however, there are other children in the house who need parental care. This calls into question the responsibility that parents have to their children, particularly when challenged by other factors. Jack becomes almost obsessed with finding Susie's killer and piecing together possible scenarios takes over his life. On the other hand, Abigail becomes increasingly withdrawn from the family and ends up having an affair and temporarily abandoning her family. These parents have the right to grieve for their daughter, but they must realize that their other children still need them. Lindsey, Susie's sister, does the best job dealing with Susie's death. She is able to move on with her life while still remembering the good times she had with Susie.
The two other social issues in the novel are violent sexual crimes against children and the difficulty of identifying pedophile sex offenders.
Let's discuss the social problem of pedophile sex offenders. What is the typical profile of a child predator? It's often difficult for children to identify who these predators may be. The book addresses this problem. Mr. Harvey is portrayed as an eccentric character, but he betrays nothing about his depraved intentions to Susie.
Often, such predators succeed in deceiving even the adults around him. After he kills Susie, Mr. Harvey expresses his sympathy and condolences to Susie's mother. He tells her: "I hope they get the bastard. I'm sorry for your loss." At this point, Franny and Susie (who are in heaven) agree that Mr. Harvey has no shame. Therein lies the problem: pedophile sex offenders may not be readily identifiable based on their exterior behavior alone. Meanwhile, Mr. Harvey is able to leverage the natural curiosity of a child to lure her to a violent doom.
Many predators also portray themselves as trustworthy and likable figures to their victims and families. For example, Mr. Harvey lets slip to Susie's father that he is a believer in "old-fashioned things like eggshells and coffee grounds" for gardens. Because he grows beautiful border flowers, Susie's mother never suspects that his apparently normal exterior hides a vicious and depraved character. So, no one in Susie's family keeps their guard up. This proves to be fatal for Susie. Later, Mr. Harvey tells Susie that he built his underground hideout for the neighborhood children, and he even offers her a drink. He only begins to reveal his true nature after Susie begs to be allowed to go home. By then, it's too late for Susie.
So, we have two social issues here: violent sexual crimes against children and the difficulty of identifying potential violent offenders. In Chapter 14, Lindsey puts herself in danger in order to look for evidence that Mr. Harvey killed her sister. She finds it in Mr. Harvey's sketchbook; it's a page with a drawing of "stalks above a sunken hole, a detail off to the side of a shelf and how a chimney could draw out smoke from a fire..." Under the drawing are the words "Stolfuz cornfield." This is where Susie died. Lindsey manages to rip the drawing out of Mr. Harvey's sketchbook and to escape before he can stop her.
Here, the book highlights the difficulty of finding enough clear evidence to convict child predators like Mr. Harvey. Even the police can't find enough substantial evidence to bring Mr. Harvey up on charges of any sort. The problem of violent crimes against children has reached such serious proportions that it has prompted the FBI to set up a Violent Crimes Against Children program. While the book highlights the two social problems I mentioned, it doesn't address how to solve those problems. It looks like it will be up to communities (working in tandem with law enforcement) to secure continued safety for all children.