By Sara Paretsky
In "Bleeding Kansas," Sara Paretsky trades the mean streets of Chicago -- the primary setting for her 12 acclaimed novels featuring private eye V.I. Warshawski -- for the mean fields of Kansas' Kaw Valley, a deceptively peaceful farming community where, as William Faulkner once wrote, "The past is never dead. It's not even the past."
At the heart of the novel are three families -- the Grelliers, the Schapens and the Fremantles -- who moved to eastern Kansas in the 1850s to oppose the creep of slavery into Kansas from neighboring Missouri. (The term "Bleeding Kansas," coined by the New York Tribune's Horace Greeley, refers to a series of violent conflicts between anti-slavery free-staters and so-called border ruffians over whether Kansas would enter the Union as a free or slave state.) Over the ensuing century-plus, later generations of Paretsky's three families continue to live and work side by side but with ever-increasing tensions, as the Schapens turn to a rigid Christian fundamentalism while the Fremantles and the Grelliers stay true to their ecumenical roots. When the free-wheeling 1960s and '70s bring hippies to the area, the latent conflicts erupt with disastrous results, further polarizing the already deeply divided neighbors.
As the novel opens in the present day, the small Kaw Valley community has returned to a seeming equilibrium, with the two remaining families -- the Grelliers and the Schapens -- living in a state of wary truce on their adjoining farms. In the words of the steady Jim Grellier, who looks forward to passing on the family land to his teenage son, " 'you can't farm in the valley' " if you and your neighbors are on bad terms. Meanwhile, Jim's passionate, idealistic wife, Susan, keeps herself busy with one enthusiasm after another -- an obsession with local history, a co-op market for small farmers, a stone-oven bakery, an organic sunflower farm -- while the Grellier kids, Chip and Lara, both appear to be fairly typical heartland teenagers, with the usual complement of chores, schoolwork, friends and extracurricular activities.
By contrast, life at the Schapens' is grim, as embittered matriarch Myra Schapen sets herself up as judge and jury of the larger community, spreading her vitriol through the Schapen family Web site. The household over which octogenarian Myra presides includes her deputy sheriff son, Arnie, and his two sons: the rapacious, thuggish Junior and sweet-natured Robbie, who is desperately, secretly, perhaps hopelessly in love with Lara Grellier -- a sort of Midwestern Romeo to Lara's Juliette.
While the Grelliers and the Schapens have reached an uneasy accommodation, the stage is set for an explosion. All that's needed is a match -- which arrives in the form of Gina Haring, a recently divorced, lesbian, ex-New Yorker with outspoken anti-war views and a penchant for Wiccan ceremonies involving large bonfires. A Fremantle niece, Gina, has retreated to the long-deserted family home in hopes of finding the time and space to pull together her life, but in short order her activities threaten to tear the community apart.
With her sophisticated wardrobe, bohemian lifestyle and fancy cappuccino machine, Gina is a blue-state poster girl trapped in a red-state world. Indeed, the attention lavished on Gina's elaborate coffeemaker brings to mind what Thomas Frank, author of the best seller "What's the Matter With Kansas?", refers to as "the latte libel" -- an insistence by hard-line conservatives "that liberals are identifiable by their tastes and consumer preferences and that these tastes and preferences reveal the essential arrogance and foreignness of liberalism . . . [i]n particular the things that liberals are said to drink, eat, and drive: the Volvos, the imported cheese, and above all, the lattes." It's not surprising, then, that when the upstanding Jim Grellier commits an indiscretion involving the comely Gina, he wryly tries to explain his lapse by saying, " 'I liked your coffee.' " Eve with her apple had nothing on Gina's cappuccino.
In its commitment to showing how small-stakes avarice has the potential to wreak global havoc, "Bleeding Kansas" can be seen as more ambitious in its reach than Paretsky's previous books, and for the most part she executes this impressive feat with considerable aplomb. Driving this message is the birth of a red heifer to the Schapen dairy herd -- an animal that becomes the subject of rapt fascination when a fringe Jewish sect identifies it as possibly being the scripturally required "perfect red heifer" whose birth paves the way for reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. This suits the Schapens just fine -- not just because they believe that rebuilding the Temple is a prelude to the Second Coming of Christ but also because of the hefty profit to be made from the heifer's fame. The downside: Attempts to reconstruct the Temple will bring international mayhem. In the words of one news reporter, staked out on heifer watch: " 'So if these nutcases start building on the Dome of the Rock, the next thing you'll see is World War Three in the Middle East.' "
If "Bleeding Kansas" has a weakness, it's Paretsky's failure to give us credible, multidimensional villains -- also a shortcoming, as she has admitted, in previous novels. In her recently published memoir, "Writing in an Age of Silence," Paretsky explains that she finds it difficult to sustain interest "in the needs or motivations of the meta-powerful," and while the nefarious Schapens might not meet this criterion, they, too, suffer from the author's unwillingness to give them a sympathetic hearing.
But while her evildoers may lack nuance, Paretsky shows a remarkable flair for teasing out the foibles as well as the strengths of her rural protagonists. Paretsky's heroes are deeply flawed and deeply human. As in previous books, she takes great pains to show how good intentions often fail to translate into good results, as when Gina's anti-war activities bring tragedy to the Grelliers, or when Susan Grellier's need to make sense of her life leads her to neglect her daughter and the well-being of her family.
Paretsky grew up in the Kaw Valley, and her love for its people, land and history shine throughout her book. Devotees of her Warshawki novels will be fascinated to see the roots of the author's social consciousness, which, fanned to life in the Chicago of the 1960s, had its roots in rural Kansas, where her family bought a farmhouse in 1958. (Incidentally, the Fremantle house where Gina takes refuge is modeled on Paretsky's childhood home. As she explains in an introductory section, young Paretsky took pride in her region's "heritage of resistance against injustice" -- including the pioneer women "who sewed bullets into their crinolines to smuggle them past the slaver guards" who "controlled access to Kansas" when it was a territory. The bloody campus conflagrations of the '60s and '70s, which hit the University of Kansas with particular force, further fueled the political commitments that continue to inform her work.
Indeed, for all the distance -- psychological and geographic -- that separates eastern Kansas from Chicago, Paretsky's preoccupations remain very much the same in this work as in her Warshawski novels: how greed and hypocrisy hide behind socially sanctioned institutions and beliefs, including big business and organized religion; and how the antidote to hatred and violence is kindness and common sense. In "Bleeding Kansas," Paretsky makes a convincing case that these are universal truths. Big city, small town, it makes no difference. Evil -- and goodness -- are everywhere.
Amy Gutman is the author of the suspense novels "Equivocal Death" and "The Anniversary."