Bleeding Kansas
by Sara Paretsky


G. P. Putnam's Sons, 2008. ISBN 978-0-399-15405-8.
Reviewed by Jennifer Melville
Posted on 09/15/2008

Fiction: Mainstream

The Schapen and Grellier families have lived next to each other for over 150 years and have been rivals for nearly as long. The Schapens cling to hellfire-and-damnation Christianity and judge their neighbors in the valley based on their misdeeds, publishing the juiciest scandals on their website for the entire world to see. The Grelliers are more open-minded and focus their energy on tending to their farm and raising their children, Chip and Lara. When divorced Gina Haring moves into the area, the fact that she is a lesbian and practicing Wiccan throws the area into outrage and the Schapens on a warpath. The families collide head-on in a battle of ideology. Bleeding Kansas is the story of life in rural Kansas and its reaction to modern, nonconformist ideas. The characters wrestle with life, love, death, rivalries, religion, and growing up in a world where modern ideas don't always mesh with tradition.

Paretsky's novel is set in the Kaw River Valley of Kansas, where she grew up. The depth of her knowledge of the area shines through in this work. Its small details bring the story to life: the corn stocks that grow so tall you can get lost in them, the scent of the earth and crops, and the vibrancy of Lawrence as the cultural center of the Midwest.

I chose to read this book because of the title. My husband and I lived in Lawrence for two years while he attended KU. I knew that bleeding Kansas referred to the state's involvement in the civil war. I was expecting a historical novel, which turned out to only partly be the case. Paretsky doesn't go into sufficient detail to explain the significance of events and places.

The Schapen tricked Lara into attending their Halloween "dance," which turned out to be an exorcism where they tried to force the devil out of her and make her come to Jesus. Bleeding Kansas is full of such complicated characters, radical religious beliefs, and deep plot lines. While not a page turner, Bleeding Kansas is an enjoyable read and a pleasurable look at what life is like growing up on a Kansas farm. It's a coming-of-age story packed with a punch of moral debate.


Sara Paretsky is the author of more than 15 novels, including 12 V.I. Warshawski novels. She is the winner of many awards, including the Cartier Diamond Dagger Award for lifetime achievement from the British Crime Writer's Association. She earned her bachelor's degree from the University of Kansas. Her Ph.D. in American History and her MBA are from the University of Chicago. She grew up in Kansas but now lives in Chicago. Visit her website.

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