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Sunday, January 13, 2008

BLEEDING KANSAS

By Sara Paretsky

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Putnam. 431 pp. $25.95

There was the 1850s' Bloody Kansas of history, and now there is Sara Paretsky's Bleeding Kansas of fiction. Each is a mix of the real and the imagined, and both are unforgettable. Paretsky, one of America's bestselling crime novelists, has taken a risk with this book. She has written a serious, multi-layered saga that requires her loyal readers to move away from the familiar world of V.I. Warshawski, the Chicago private detective whom Paretsky brought to life in 12 previous novels. In its place, she has created a wild, wicked world in present-day northeastern Kansas that is as complicated as it is mean.

At the heart of the novel are the passions of hard-pressed farm families who milk, sow and reap and mostly despise one another. There are fanatic Christians who hate in the name of Jesus, Jews fixated on a perfect red heifer calf that will help them rebuild the original Temple in Jerusalem, and naked Wiccan women who dance around bonfires. Sex of several varieties is sprinkled throughout. Adultery, drugs, suicide, alcoholism and madness are present. The Iraq war, as an issue and as a cause of a young soldier's death, is there, too.

Underlying these current events are those from pre-Civil War Bleeding Kansas, when pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces committed unspeakable murders in the name of racial politics. Those stories come forward mostly through letters from that earlier violent time. There are also glimpses of the conflicts in the 1960s and '70s that brought bombings and other mayhem to the nearby campus of the University of Kansas at Lawrence.

In short, nobody will ever confuse Sara Paretsky's Kansas with that of Judy Garland and Oz. There are few rainbows and little music among the neighboring Grelliers and Schapens, the two families who are central to Bleeding Kansas. Their feud over who are the better Christians, among other issues, goes back 150 years. The plot focuses on possible peace-making among the warring parties, which is triggered mostly by some heavy petting between Lara Grellier and Robbie Schapen, two teenagers with the hots for each other.

Paretsky grew up in the area where her novel is set. She clearly knows the territory -- the history and the people. There are times, in fact, when her knowledge seems too much. Some brush-clearing, particularly at the beginning when trying to sort through many names, characters and situations, would have been helpful. Rereading is often necessary to follow who is doing what, where, when and why.

But that is a minor complaint. The bottom line is that Sara Paretsky has demonstrated in Bleeding Kansas the superb skills as a novelist that were already known and admired by the avid followers of V.I. Warshawski. It is likely that V.I. herself, after reading this book, would not be able to resist rushing off to Kansas to try shaking some common sense as well as peace into the Grelliers and the Schapens.

-- Jim Lehrer is the host of "The NewsHour" on PBS.


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