By Sara Paretsky
Putnam, 431 pp., $25.95
In the 1850s, before the start of the Civil War, the bloody battle between pro- and anti-slavery forces was fought in the territory of Kansas. Today, a Democratic governor presides over a Republican majority, the mantra of fiscal conservatism combats the populist rallying cry, and the teaching of creationism vs. evolution is still fiercely debated. And this Kansas - a state still bitterly divided over politics, religion, race, and science - is not just the backdrop, but the primary character in Sara Paretsky's brave new novel, "Bleeding Kansas." It is a protagonist every bit as complex and volatile as any character in her V.I. Warshawski series.
Unlike Paretsky's mysteries, this book starts slowly as she introduces her cast, families with abutting property and conflicting values. Jim and Susan Grellier farm land that has been in Jim's family for generations, and while Susan's passion for the history of the anti-slavery emigrant families who settled the area is informed and deep, her other, more transient enthusiasms - for a farmers' retail coop, organic farming, a new neighbor's Wiccan practices - embarrass her husband and two children, Chip and Lara.
They also excite the enmity of another neighbor, Myra Schapen, a blogging ultra-conservative evangelical Christian whose son Arnie and grandson Junior have tormented two generations of Grelliers. Caught in the crossfire is Junior's brother Robbie, a singer-songwriter of heavy metal Christian music who adores Lara Grellier. It's only fitting that Robbie, the family's black sheep, should be assigned the job of caring for a red heifer born on the farm.
"You love Jesus and want Him to come again to save the world, don't you, Robbie? . . . And you know it says in the Bible that Jesus cannot come again until the Temple is rebuilt in Jerusalem. And the Jews can't rebuild the Temple until they have a perfect red heifer," Robbie's pastor explains. And in that relentless, literal logic much is revealed about just how profoundly different are the world views of neighbors separated only by fields of winter wheat, sorghum, and sunflowers.
This divergence, not only in outlook, but in life experience, is sharpened when Chip, humiliated by his mother's newest passion - the anti-Iraq war movement - enlists in the Army and is killed in action. Possessed by guilt and grief, Susan falls into a deep depression, leaving Jim to cope with his own loss, the farm, and Lara, his once shining but now angry, alienated daughter. It is at this point in the plot, but even more in the characterizations, that Paretsky hits her stride. Her portraits of Robbie and Lara, two adolescents whose lives are buffeted by the adults who fail them and the larger system that betrays them, is sensitive and nuanced.
"Bleeding Kansas" may not be a conventional mystery, but it is a suspenseful page-turner nonetheless. As we root for these two good kids to find their way through a world that is simultaneously so big and so small, we race not just to see how the book ends but how a better future might begin. And for that, Paretsky - herself a product of a two-room schoolhouse in Kansas - should be thanked.
Julie Wittes Schlack is a Cambridge-based writer and facilitator of online communities.