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'Bleeding Kansas' by Sara Paretsky - Book Review

About.com Rating 3.5 Star Rating


'Bleeding Kansas' by Sara Paretsky

'Bleeding Kansas' - Courtesy Putnam

The Bottom Line

Sara Paretsky, known for her bestselling novels set in Chicago, has turned her focus to Kansas, her home state, for her latest novel. Bleeding Kansas tells the story of the Grelliers, a farming family whose Kansas roots extend back to the fight over slavery. Though times have changed many of the struggles they face, including clashes between neighbors over war and religion, are just as critical. Paretsky’s novel paints an intimate portrait of a family and community dealing with each other’s differences.


  • 'Bleeding Kansas' covers relatively unworn territory by describing life in a Kansas farm community


  • The sheer number of characters makes the book confusing for the first few chapters


  • The farmland near Lawrence, Kansas has a long history of neighbors relying on each other
  • The Grelliers cherish their ancestors’ story, but experience tension with their current neighbors
  • A miracle calf born on a nearby farm brings religious extremists to this sheltered part of Kansas
  • 'Bleeding Kansas' was first published by Putnam in 2008

Guide Review - 'Bleeding Kansas' by Sara Paretsky - Book Review

When the Grelliers ancestors moved to Kansas, settlers were caught up in a violent feud over the future of slavery in the state, an era that gives Bleeding Kansas its title. In Paretsky’s novel, the same settling families remain in the area today, struggling to make their livings as farmers. The fight over slavery has been resolved, but the war in Iraq, a new resident whose lifestyle scandalizes some, and heightening religious fervor all create volatile neighborly relations.

Susan Grellier, a mother and farmer, is fascinated by her ancestors’, but eventually her passion for history turns into a disruptive focus on protesting the war in Iraq. Her husband, Jim, struggles to deal with their son, who resents the negative attention his mother draws to the family. Lara Grellier, the youngest child, copes with the beginning of high school and the feeling that she’s being ignored by her family.

Bleeding Kansas tries to tie itself to the rhythms of life on the farm, and the book is divided into sections according to the seasons. While growth and harvesting play their roles in the novel, the narrative spends too little time on those aspects, jumping around instead from character to character, from farmland to town, and from history to present. By the conclusion of Bleeding Kansas, Paretsky’s tale pulls the reader along swiftly, but there are too many digressions to make this a truly compelling read.

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