Bleeding Kansas, Sara Paretsky, G P Putnam's Sons, 2008, 431 pp
The novel is not a V I Warshawski book but I read it now because I am going through Sara Paretsky's books in the order in which she published them. The only other non-Warshawski novel so far was Ghost Country but that one was set in Chicago, as are all the Warshwskis. This is a stand-alone set in Kansas.
I guess because of the title I thought it would be about the bloody conflict over slavery, John Brown, etc. Since I read The Good Lord Bird earlier this year, I figured that would be fine.
Actually the story, though it does take place in Kansas, is set in the very early years of the 21st century, shortly after 9/11 and during the war in Iraq. Sara Paretsky grew up in Kansas, so her sense of place is acute and her experiences with Kansans shows in her characters.
Anyone familiar with her work knows that the author is a longtime liberal. As she says in her introduction, she was raised on the Kansas Territory history of anti-slavery that earned it the "Bleeding Kansas" epithet. She feels she shares a heritage of resistance against injustice. In the novel she also reveals a sharp wit.
Two farm families who histories have intertwined for generations and who have managed to co-exist on neighboring farms have finally come into conflict due to widening political differences. The Schapens are fundamentalist right wingers while the Grelliers are liberal. After the Grelliers lose a son in Iraq and a Schapen son is discovered hiding certain misdeeds behind his grandmother's fundamentalist reputation, 16 year olds Lara Grellier and Robbie Schapen progress from friends to being in a relationship. Confrontations arise and emotions are stirred up to monstrous proportions leading to a sobering climax.
It is in some ways quite a melodramatic story but Paretsky keeps a firm hand on all the characters, including a Wiccan and an alcoholic aging female hippie, as well as on the incendiary incidents. The result is a fast paced read that sheds both light and humor on the divisive political and religious elements in our society as they play out in everyday life.
I was nicely surprised though I would recommend Bleeding Kansas to my liberal friends and relatives while keeping it out of the hands of conservative types. They don't seem to like being laughed at so probably would not get the humor.
(Bleeding Kansas is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)