While I have not been a reader of Sara Paretsky’s
mysteries featuring private investigator V.I. Warshawski, I have
long been aware of one of Chicago’s finest writers. It was
with great interest, therefore, that I received my copy of BLEEDING
KANSAS, which represents a major departure for Paretsky. Instead of
the grim streets of Chicago, the setting is Lawrence, Kansas, a
community of farmers and University of Kansas students and
teachers. Rather than a bang-bang mystery, it is a thoughtful
work focusing on issues that paint the contemporary political
landscape. The book’s title reminds us of the Kansas
territory of 150 years ago and the battle between pro- and
anti-slavery forces. The novel itself serves as a thoughtful
reminder to readers that the philosophical battle of that era in
American history continues today.
Paretsky’s father was a faculty member at the University of
Kansas. Her family moved to Lawrence when she was four years old,
and she resided there until her permanent relocation to Chicago.
BLEEDING KANSAS, while not autobiographical in the purest sense, is
a reflection upon what she experienced and observed in a unique
community, a blue-state island in the red state of Kansas. The
novel is a deeper exploration of many of the same issues discussed
by Paretsky in her recently published WRITING IN AN AGE OF SILENCE,
a series of essays that offer her views on a number of the
hot-button issues that confront our nation.
BLEEDING KANSAS is the story of three families whose roots are deep
in the Jayhawk State. The Grellier family has been farming in
Kansas for generations. The father, Jim, his wife Susan, and
children Lara and Chip seem to be the ideal American farm family,
combining solid traditional values with a contemporary 21st-century
view of life. But ugly events will doom their lives. Tension grows
between the Grelliers and the Schapens, a neighboring farm family
whose fundamental religious views are anathema to the Grelliers.
The Schapen family includes the stern matriarch Myra, her deputy
sheriff son Aaron, and his two boys, Junior and Robbie. The
romantic relationship between Lara Grellier and Robbie Schapen
serves as a Shakesperean-like backdrop to the conflict of
A third family, the Freemantles, appears mostly in a historical
context through a diary and an ancient farmhouse that has been the
site of mysterious historical events. The house will be temporarily
occupied by Gina Haring, a Freemantle niece who has traveled from
New York in an effort to re-focus her life. Haring’s anti-war
and liberal views are the flint that will spark confrontation in
After the 2004 election, author Tom Franks used his home state of
Kansas to ask crucial questions of political significance. Why do
so many of us vote against our economic interests? Where is the
outrage at corporate manipulators? And what ever happened to
middle-American progressivism? These were the riddles of
WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH KANSAS?, one of the bestselling
political tomes of 2005. BLEEDING KANSAS confronts many of those
same questions and continues that discussion through
Paretsky’s fictional portrayal of the ongoing debate in our
nation over the relationship between religion and public policy.
Since the birth of America, citizens have debated these issues in
discussions that have gone beyond words and ended in violence. For
some, the debate has raged for so long that they have forgotten
what they are fighting over.
For Paretsky, an accomplished and talented writer with a large
following, BLEEDING KANSAS represents a noteworthy change of style.
Perhaps that is why the novel seems to start slowly. But as the
characters are fleshed out and we learn more about their lives, the
book’s insight and universal truths --- whether found in
Chicago, Illinois, or Lawrence, Kansas --- become evident. Paretsky
has traveled a long distance from V.I. Warshawski’s Chicago,
and her audience will enjoy the journey.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on January 7, 2011