Alice Sebold wrote The Lovely Bones in the late 1990s; the book first appeared in print in June 2002; and the story takes place in the 1970s. All of these dates prove significant. At the time of the writing, America was facing both a new decade and a new millennium. By the late 1990s, Americans saw the creation of the World Wide Web; engaged in debates over health care, social security reform, gun control; watched national sex scandals unfold (the Tailhook affair and the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinski affair); sat riveted to the O. J. Simpson murder trial; and were stunned by the violence of the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado. Sebold penned her story amid a growing awareness of, and concern with, issues of domestic, sexual, and teen violence. In many ways, her novel reflects these concerns as it reflects the cultural climate of the 1990s.
Its publication date, however, carries added significance. The novel, released less than a year after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington D.C., speaks directly to a nation's need for comfort. The Lovely Bones made its debut in an America forever stripped of its belief that terrorism and random violence happens elsewhere. The social and cultural atmosphere at this time radiated fear, distrust, sadness, anger, and grief. Although Sebold wrote this novel before the attacks, the subject matter echoes the contemporaneous concerns of America.
The novel also draws on the historical, cultural, social, and political issues of the 1970s. In many ways, America "came of age" in the 1970s as social change, discontent with the government, advances in civil rights for minorities and women, environmental concerns, and space exploration defined the decade. The Vietnam War, which sparked antiwar protests and student demonstrations, and the Watergate Scandal, which resulted in the resignation of a president, shattered the last vestiges of a naive America. Other changes arose in the 1970s that added to America's cultural and social climate, including the women's movement. Women's places in American life expanded into political and professional areas, and people began to question the traditional gender roles of women and men.
The changes of the 1970s figure into The Lovely Bones in several ways: first, through Sebold's female characters. Ruth Connors embodies the feminism of the 1970s with her avant-garde approach to her drawings, poetry, and reading. She refuses the constraints of the status quo in these areas as well as in the arena of acceptably feminine behavior and attire. However, whereas Ruth overtly embraces feminism, Susie's mother, Abigail, struggles to name her discontent. Abigail illustrates many of the women in the 1970s who did not publicly espouse feminism, yet whose desire to transcend the constraints of motherhood and wifehood drew on feminist principles. Secondly, the novel reflects the 1970s concern with the environment through the encroachment of building and industry into the Salmons' suburban neighborhood. Finally, the disturbing subject matter of a child's rape and murder, and Susie's refusal to sanitize the images of her death reflect the horrific pictures of the dead and dismembered of the Vietnam War. During the 1970s, images of violence entered the homes of suburban Americans through the television, and for the first time, Americans watched a war—complete with all of its horrors—from their living rooms. In The Lovely Bones, the tangible marks of violence that enter suburbia are not media images of war dead; rather, those marks are the objects of a raped and murdered girl.
Additional discussion on historical context:
The publication of The Lovely Bones and its ascent to bestseller status came as much of the nation was gripped by the story of Elizabeth Smart, a fourteen-year-old girl who was kidnapped from her home in Salt Lake City, Utah, in June, 2002. Pictures of Smart filled newspapers, television,...
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