Swans Commentary » swans.com December 28, 2009  



A Private Feminine Eye


by Peter Byrne


Book Reviews



Paretsky, Sara: Writing In An Age Of Silence, 2007, Verso, NYC, ISBN: 1844671224, 138 pages, $12.95; Bleeding Kansas, 2008, Signet, NYC, ISBN: 978-0-451-22448-4, 593 pages, $9.99.



"Every writer's difficult journey is a movement from silence to speech. We must be intensely private and interior in order to find a voice and a vision -- and we must bring our work to an outside world where the market, or public outrage, or even government censorship can destroy our voice."
—Sara Paretsky, Writing In An Age Of Silence, Page 111


(Swans - December 28, 2009)   On August 6, 1966, the parishioners of St. Justin Martyr Church in Chicago tried to burn down the rectory. Three young people grabbed the smoldering carpets that had been piled against the building and beat out the flames. They were students, nineteen years old, who were spending the summer managing a leisure program for neighborhood children. One of the students was an undergraduate at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, her hometown. Her name was Sara Paretsky.

The week before the pastor of St. Justin had reminded his flock that segregated housing was not Christian. Thereafter the attendance at Sunday mass fell from two thousand to two hundred.

In Chicago that day, however, the fire was the least of the violence. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a march for open housing through a hostile neighborhood. A white mob shouting "Burn them like Jews" threw bricks and even Molotov cocktails. Some of the attackers were mothers pushing babies in buggies. The march marked King's last attempt to bring about change in Chicago. Afterward he said, "I have never in my life seen such hate, not in Mississippi or Alabama." Sara Paretsky tells us, "That summer changed my life forever."

In her memoir Writing In An Age of Silence, she recounts that life with all its hard edges and an unmistakable ring of truth. It's an account that makes clear what brought her not only to the fore of crime writing, but what led her to social work, feminism, and political engagement. As naturally as these life interests flow from her early family life, that life itself was anything but typical.

Sara Paretsky's father was a New Yorker, born to Jewish parents who had fled Hitler's Europe. He left City College to finish his Ph.D. in bacteriology at the University of Iowa where eminent European researchers had gathered during WWII. He married a woman whose parents also had a Jewish refugee background. The couple settled in Lawrence where he taught at the University of Kansas.

Lawrence in the 1950s was hopelessly narrow-minded. Being in the middle of nowhere didn't prevent the John Birch Society and "Freedom committees" from claiming that Communism was an immediate threat. In one instance, they made a high-school teacher resign because he was getting a Ph.D. in Soviet History and had dared to learn Russian. There was de facto segregation in housing not only for blacks but for Jews.

The Paretskys thought they solved the problem by buying a big house five miles out of town. In reality the move sealed Sara's fate. The family's isolation would exacerbate its dysfunctions. Sara had to attend a two-room school and spent the rest of the day at home occupied mainly in domestic chores. She had one older brother, one who was just younger than she, and two more who were only babies.

Her father and mother differed on most things but not on shifting the burdens of parenthood on to their offspring. All the children had definite tasks, but Sara as the only girl bore the brunt. The demands on her can be seen in the attitude of her baby brothers when they entered school. They had no idea what "sister" meant and thought Sara was their mother.

As a young woman, Sara's mother obtained a place in medical school, which she then refused to take up. She later made a desultory stab at graduate studies. In Lawrence she stayed at home and cultivated her conviction that "the system" was irremediably set against women. When young Sara, through hard work and scholarships, got ahead regardless, her mother's attitude hardened. "The system" was such that a girl shouldn't try to get around it. Sara should accept being homebound as she had. With "almost savage bitterness," mother undermined daughter.

This chimed perfectly with her father's outlook. He felt women were naturally inferior and told Sara early that she had a second-rate mind and shouldn't expect much of an education, which, in any case, he wasn't going to help her acquire.

Sara's candor makes her account especially valuable. Her adult view of her parents is unsentimental and devastating. They had little to give their children because they were so needy themselves. Sara felt she was being called upon to mother a pair of adult orphans. Her father feared female sexuality and treated Sara as a neutered, failed male. His blind rages were inexplicable. Wife and husband fought a never ending, violent feud, interrupted only by her drunkenness and his three-day spells of refusal to speak a word.

Sara paid for her lucid view of her parents with a crushed childhood and adolescence. She would feel that her first twenty years were completely dominated by her father. Only psychotherapy, a feminist itinerary, and an understanding husband finally brought her independence. That in turn gave her a voice as a writer, and eventually as a crime writer.

It was no surprise, though a novelty in detective fiction, that Sara's approach to the noir was marked by her feminism and social concerns, which went back to Lawrence and her unhappy youth. If hers can be called a "misery memoir," her creativity gave it a positive ending.

As for me, I wanted to write a crime novel, I wanted to create a woman who would turn the tables on the dominant views of women in fiction and in society. The more I read, the more I realized that a woman's moral character was determined by her sexuality: if she were chaste, she was good, but helpless, unable to act. If she had sex, she could act. But she could perform only evil deeds. (Page 60)

And so in Indemnity Only, 1981, Victoria Iphigenia Varshawski, (soon Vic or V.I.), began her private-eye career in print. Dates are important, as V.I. will age in real time. She disdains feminine wiles and daintiness; dressing up is not a priority. She has problematic love affairs, makes plenty of mistakes, and is often scared. Breaking with the male private-eye tradition that goes back to Sam Spade, V.I. feels pain and is no superhero. She doesn't escape moral choices. No more is she a lone wolf, but very much dependent on others. Sara's model is the feminists' "sisterhood." In more than a dozen novels, V.I., working from humble Chicago neighborhoods, has fought crime, especially when it wears a white collar.

In Bleeding Kansas Sara Paretsky takes a tricky step for a crime writer, she abandons genre writing and attempts a "straight" novel. (She tried once before with Ghost Country in 1998.) Her title goes back to Civil War days when the Kansas territory was the scene of its own bloody local war. Righteous abolitionists fought off proponents of slavery who came over the border from the slave state of Missouri. The novel unfolds in our time, but one of the characters, Susan, will be obsessed with the past. She has married into a farming family outside of Lawrence where a tight little community has roots in the tumultuous pioneer days of the mid 19th century.

Susan's husband Jim is politically correct in third millennium American terms. He attends to his farm and avoids conflict in his squabbling corner of Kansas. No patriarch, he simply reminds his two teenage children of the standards expected of them. He's uneasy about Susan's activities, always begun in enthusiasm and left unfinished. But he recognizes that she's driven by a reckless imagination and stands by to repair the inevitable damage.

The reader has time for doubts and a yawn a chapter long as the author fills 150 pages setting up her drama. He feels trapped in an advice-to-teens magazine column that never ends as the conversation at the nuclear family's dinner table drones on. However, after arranging all the stage furniture Sara finally pulls the curtain all the way up.

Susan goes too far and takes up with a group of newcomers who not only dabble in new-age witchcraft but a feminism that welcomes lesbians. In a community where bible thumping and malicious gossip are the main pastimes this makes them outlaws. When the Wiccans also protest against the invasion of Iraq, they are denounced as Communists and terrorists.

Jim watches with horror as Susan, identifying with his militant abolitionist forebears, becomes an outcast in the community. Minding his own business no longer suffices. His troubles begin to interfere with the running of the farm. Worst of all is the effect of their mother's behavior on her children. The lives of 15-year-old Lara and 17-year-old Chip are thrown off track. Feeling neglected, they crave a conventional mother. Their father with his fair-mindedness strikes them as ineffectual and irrelevant.

Chip, going on 18, of course has other problems too. Will he make it in professional baseball, take on the farm to keep it in the family, go on to college? As it happens he doesn't manage to finish high school. Susan has not only danced naked with the Wiccans, she's been arrested during an antiwar demonstration. Chip, humiliated amongst his peers and deeply offended by his mother, turns pro-war. Exchanging his several problems for one big one, he goes off to join the army.

This leaves his sister very much alone under a weight of responsibilities. The novelist will henceforth stay close to Lara's sentiments and thinking. The girl's hostility toward her mother grows as Susan refuses to approve the war and make peace with Chip. In no time he's shipped to Iraq where only twenty-four days later a roadside bomb ends his life.

Sara gives us an insight into how the Iraq War is perceived in rural mid-America. It's not at all like the reaction to the war in Vietnam that she described in her memoir. The college town of Lawrence was then a battleground of pro and antiwar factions. The shift from a conscript army to one of professional volunteers has clearly deadened public opinion. It's not the pros and cons of the invasion of Iraq that interest people. They accept the war as an act of God, but one that weighs lightly on the general consciousness. Only when a tiny minority insists that the war is a mistake, invoking specific reasons, does the majority voice its support of the war with vehemence. This, again, has little to do with the issues, but more with odium for the holders of an "alien" opinion.

Hate and patriotism grow when Chip's body comes home. Though not especially noteworthy in the community, he becomes so after his death. His high school girlfriend strikes the pose of a war widow and on the strength of smooching sessions in the back of Chip's car lays (unsuccessful) claim to his government insurance money. His own family is stunned. Lara, devastated, becomes more enraged with her mother. Jim feels a slight change in his own attitude could have kept his son at home. Susan, whether from guilt, despair, or obsession with principle -- maybe all three -- is driven to madness and attempts suicide.

Again, save for Susan, the war itself, whether right or wrong, isn't questioned. We are far from the clear opposition of principle between slaveholders and abolitionists in the 1850s. A man is dead, and the feelings of Jim and Lara would be the same if he got drunk after a family quarrel and killed himself in a traffic accident.

While these somber events have seared the souls of the family foursome, Sara Paretsky keeps us amused and guessing with lesser but suspenseful goings-on. Those early patches we thought arid in fact established a host of minor characters. Some of them are comic-strip evil, some otherworldly benevolent. Several show intriguing quirks that the author leaves undeveloped. An assortment of churches dots the countryside, each claiming that their particular weirdness nullifies the tenets of the others. The novel slips into country bumpkin satire.

Fishing in this shallow pool stocked with clichés, Sara manages to keep her narrative moving. But as we cruise along past page 400 we wonder why we don't simply call it a day. Chip is dead. Susan is a medicated zombie of no more novelistic interest. Jim, after being floored by his responsibilities, has regained some balance and buckles down to managing the farm. Lara, become the only character still growing and rendered in depth, moves through adolescence as in the best of literary coming of age novels.

But will Lara's growing pains, even deeply felt, manage to get us to the end of the novel whose final page is marked 593? Only by Sara's intertwining all sorts of minor intrigues. Comeuppances will be delivered and there will be a number of scores settled as the straw men she carefully set up are knocked over.

Finally, after a well-engineered but perfunctory crowd and conflagration scene, we reach an end, and it's a happy one. Susan has come back to herself and can offer Lara what it's now obvious she needs: to be a child again, mothered and free of adult responsibility. Jim, after a one-off visit to the pants of a snotty New York visitor, is back on the straight and narrow path of political correctness. The nuclear family returns to what it was, minus a dead son.

The harsh truth of Sara Paretsky's memoir has been softened. Countless pages of light comedy and melodrama -- even a feel-good ending -- have been added to the core experience of her childhood, which alone made her the author we know. Her impossible father has been emasculated and rendered harmless. But her mother's contrariness and drunken absence lurks in Susan's egotistical schemes and medicated depression. Lara's crushing loneliness and onerous duties at home are exactly what Sara endured. The fictional Lara's camaraderie with Chip replicates Sara's with her brothers.

Now Sara Paretsky is a skilled veteran in the making of detective fiction. She knows all about the art of tension, suspense, concision, and bringing down the curtain with a bang. So why didn't she keep closer to the economy of the noir, set out her deeply felt family situation and skip the highjinx? It's a psycho-cultural question. Genre writers of proven ability regularly decide late in their careers to break into "straight" fiction. As with Bleeding Kansas, this almost always involves a great leap in length and a landing in boundless fields where padding grows like corn in mid-America. The reader can only murmur a heartfelt, "Come back Victoria Iphigenia."


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art15/pbyrne116.html
Published December 28, 2009