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This is a big book offering everything from romance and family feuds to religious bigotry and American history, and most of us found it too much to swallow. It is not the sort of slick thriller we have come to expect from the author of the VI Warshawki sleuth series. Instead it’s a meandering tale that is confusing from the start.
Bleeding Kansas tells the story of two families who have been farming in the Kaw River Valley for more than 150 years. By the time we meet the Schapens and the Grelliers, they hate each other. The Schapens, who worship at something called the Salvation Through the Blood of Jesus Full Bible Church, are a bitter clan of religious zealots, all too ready to judge and condemn their neighbours. The Grelliers try to understand and not to interfere but in their easy-going way allow events to overwhelm them, causing mayhem and tragedy.
The plot has many strands and a bewildering cast of one-dimensional characters, but the main drama unfolds after Gina Haring, a New York lesbian and New Age wiccan, moves into a dilapidated house near both farms. The matriarch of the Schapen family, an evil old harridan called Myra, is incensed. More witch-like than any wiccan, she denounces Gina as a “sodomite11, and mounts a vendetta against both the new neighbour and the “communist” Susan Grellier, whose liberal leanings have led her to start a co-op farmers’ market and object to the war in Iraq.
Events progress from the ridiculous to the farcical when a Schapen cow gives birth to the perfect red heifer referred to in the Old Testament, creating national news hysteria and involving both fundamentalist Christians and ultra-orthodox Jews.
Along the way, the teenage Schapen son falls for young Lara Grellier, whose brother is killed in Iraq. Susan takes to her bed, obsessed by her loss and by the civil war diaries of her husband Jim’s great-grandmother. Jim in turn seeks solace with the lesbian Gina. We can only assume that she allows him into her bed in gratitude for rescuing her from a ruin which she was searching for the bodies of commune-members burnt decades earlier. Why no one has looked for the bodies before is not explained, but there’s a mad old drunk who wanders around searching for a lost baby and blaming Myra for starting the fire. By the time it all comes to a head in a grand Halloween finale, there are too many loose ends to count.
We meet again on Thursday January 8th, when we will be reading Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit.
Withiel Book Circle – reading list
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