Thursday, May 07, 2009

Sara Paretsky: Bleeding Kansas

I have been having a really bad day, for no other reason than a) I'm just feeling very down at the moment, and b) I'm trying to drill three holes in the living-room wall, with less than stellar results. Let's not go there. At one in the afternoon I broke down in tears and decided to take a break and write this blog entry instead to take my mind off wall craters. The instant I sat down my middle daughter rang and wanted me to pick her up from school because she wasn't feeling well. Now it's half-past ten at night, I sit down again, and at the first click of the keys my husband leans over to say that he took a facebook test to determine which ordinary thing he is (apparently he is sliced cheese, which is actually rather funny).

But I haven't lost my train of thought yet. I may if he speaks to me again.

Paretsky writes in the foreword that she grew up in Kansas, something I didn't know. It shows however that she's writing about ... how should I put it ... about people she understands and respects and loves, about a part of the world that she has deep feelings for. Unlike in a Warshawski novel, the main characters here aren't very savvy or politically aware, but "simple" farmers who take a "simple" pride in growing food that feeds people. They are patriotic and trust that the news is reported correctly and that the government knows its business. They are religious and church-going, and incorporate this into their daily lives. This doesn't make them idiots or despicable. There is no sarcasm here, no cynicism. I found this very endearing, very moving, and it gripped me all the way to the end.

The novel centres on three Kansas families that long ago settled together, worked together and fought slave-owners together, but now are estranged. The main families are the Grelliers, the "normal" family, and the Schapens, members of a deeply conservative church and run by a xenophobic and hate-filled matriarch. The main subplot is the birth of a red heifer at the Schapen farm, something with deep significance to a group of Orthodox Jews and to the conservative Christians (seriously, this is, what, the third novel I read featuring a red heifer. I should have kept track and added labels. Mental note.). There are a lot of other little plots and ideas - like how ludicrous it is to imagine that you can live in solitude in the country, where everyone talks about your affairs, how the Iraq conflict tears families apart, how grief can destroy a person, how religion can be twisted.... It's quite boxily written, yetI really liked it. There is something so true and respectful at the base of it. The boxiness is part of the whole aura. Oh, I can't explain myself, I can see that. Forget the literary criticism (attempts at). I actually cried reading this. I was touched at the pain the parents felt when their son died in Iraq. The simplicity of it, the way the world is changed for everyone and they don't know how to handle it - it's well described without in any way being too political and righteous. I would have expected Paretsky to be more cynical towards these Bush-following Republicans, but no. She understands, she respects, she grieves with them. When they sin, she doesn't judge. She tells the story. I had a great reading experience with this. Objectively, I can see that this is not the most astounding novel the world has seen - emotionally, it struck a deep chord. Funny how that happens. I'd recommend it now to anyone.

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