Friday, July 18, 2008

Bleeding Kansas

Sara Paretsky is, of course, best known for her V.I. Warshawski detective series, a series that has long chronicled the life of one of the best known female detectives in the world of fiction. Her readers, me among them, carry a little “character comfort” into each of the new books in that series and, like me, they may have been thrown a little off-stride by Bleeding Kansas, Paretsky’s stand-along look at contemporary life in rural Kansas.

Bleeding Kansas centers around the state’s Civil War era history, a time in which families in border states like Kansas had to pick one side or the other regarding the issue of slavery. No one was allowed to remain neutral, and the wrong choice often proved to be a fatal one when things heated up and neighbor turned on neighbor. The Grelliers, Fremantles and Schapens are three families whose Kansas roots are well documented all the way back to their arrival there in the 1850s. Although the three families strongly supported each other in the anti-slavery fight of those years, today they have little in common.

The Grellier and Schapen families still farm some of their original acreage but the only thing recalling the Freemantle past is the dilapidated old mansion of theirs that dates back to their earliest years in the state and is now being occupied by a free-thinking niece of theirs. By now, the Schapens have evolved into a family dominated by the hypocrisy and bigotry of the preacher who runs their fundamentalist Christian church. The Grelliers are trying to eke out a living from their farming and whatever other small business ideas they can use to bring in a little extra cash.

Times are tough economically and tensions are already high when Gina Haring, the Freemantle niece, moves into the old house to refocus her life after having suffered through a divorce in New York. Haring is the suspicious type and her “chip on the shoulder” attitude, lesbian relationship, and fascination with Wiccan ceremonial practices escalates community tensions to a new high.

Bleeding Kansas is Paretsky’s look at what can happen in modern small town society when a cultural clash suddenly develops. She draws parallels between the conflicts of the mid-1800s involving pro and anti-slavery advocates and the modern clash between the local fundamentalists, represented by the Schapens, and the liberal women from Lawrence who join Haring in her lifestyle in their small community. Paretsky demonstrates that, emotionally, very little has changed and that people are still capable of physically attacking their neighbors over simple differences in politics or lifestyle.

Bleeding Kansas raises important questions and provokes thought on the social condition of modern America. It is not at all a bad book. But, as a novel, it does not entirely succeed in achieving the feeling of reality required to best get its message across because so many of its characters are almost cartoonishly extreme.Some of them, Jim Grellier, in particular, are almost too good to be true.Others, especially those characters representing the Christian fundamentalist sect in the book, are so blatantly close-minded and evil that it is at times difficult to take them seriously, lessening the impact of the book’s message. This one is a near miss.

Rated at: 3.0


  1. I like the VI novels, but I just could not get past the first few chapters of this one. I'm glad to know I didn't miss much.

  2. Unless you're a fan of overstatement and the obvious, you missed very little, factotum.

  3. I read an advance copy of this (picked it up because I am from Kansas) and found it difficult to get into. I did finish, but for many of the same reasons you list in your review, I didn't enjoy it very much.

  4. I can imagine your disappointment, Lenore. There's nothing worse for me than when one of my favorite authors lets me down in as big a way as this book did.