Paretsky Unspools a New Mystery: Her Own

By Gabriel Sanders

Published June 06, 2007, issue of June 08, 2007.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Writing In An Age Of Silence
By Sara Paretsky
Verso, 158 pages, $22.95.

Decades before she developed the literary alter ego for which she is best known — the female private investigator V.I. Warshawski — mystery writer Sara Paretsky was already experimenting with fictional personas, fictional masks.

As one of the few Jewish girls growing up in Lawrence, Kan., in the 1950s, Paretsky strove to tame the “frizzy mass” of hair that set her apart from her classmates and their “fine straight silk.” In the ‘60s, when follicular fashion called for a curtain of hair down to one’s knees, Paretsky “spent hours of misery putting chemical straighteners on my hair, only to have it flame out around my head like the burning bush.”

Conflagration serves as a leitmotif in Paretsky’s latest book, a collection of autobiographical essays titled “Writing in an Age of Silence.” In delineating her central theme — the movement from silence to speech — fire becomes shorthand for the forces of menace and oppression. The species of female self-sacrifice she finds idealized by Victorian writers like Louisa May Alcott, whose “Little Women” she says she read dozens of times as a girl, becomes not just self-abnegation but “self-immolation.” When she first pulls into Chicago, a city she would ultimately call home, her first impression is of “methane flares” and “the white-orange fire of pouring steel.” Her first glimpse, she writes, “looked like a prelude for the entry into hell.” Though she would later go to the city to study American history at the University of Chicago, her first visit, in 1966, was as a student volunteer. She managed a day camp in a white enclave and marched with Martin Luther King as he tried to desegregate a neighborhood nearby. She watched in horror as white mobs, while setting fire to cars and throwing Molotov cocktails, shouted, “Burn them like the Jews.”

Part memoir, part credo and part call to arms, the book’s five essays — which originated as speeches she began giving to library associations in the wake of the Patriot Act — fall somewhat short of a unified whole, but are, nonetheless, crisp, learned and often moving. Paretsky opens with her Kansas childhood, which she describes as isolated and deeply unhappy. Her father, a New York-born biochemist who took a position at the University of Kansas in 1951, was controlling and prone to sudden fits of rage. Her mother was a gifted women consumed by bitterness over roads not taken. And yet, in spite of the unhappiness in their home, Paretsky’s parents still labored for social justice in the broader world. Both were on the front lines in fighting segregation.

The book’s second and third chapters are devoted to Paretsky’s work in the civil rights and women’s movements. Here the book lags, often reading like a collection of old Op-Eds. In her fourth chapter, however, Paretsky hits her stride. A spirited critique of America’s fascination with “rugged individualism,” it opens with Roger Williams, the dissenter who broke away from the Massachusetts Bay Colony and founded what is today Rhode Island. For Paretsky, Williams is not a champion of freedom but an anti-social scold, among whose heirs she counts such latter-day “prophets” as the Branch Davidians of Waco, Texas. From Williams she moves on to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, the fathers of the private eye genre. In Paretsky’s eyes, their detectives are essentially amoral men — with questionable attitudes toward women — whose vaunted self-sufficiency essentially masks an indifference to society. Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski is thus a subversion of the genre on a number of counts. First, she is woman. Second, she is a member of society, not a figure on its periphery. The individualists in Paretsky’s mysteries are not the gumshoes but the corporate executives who have retreated to “a place where they try to use money and power as a shield between themselves and the rest of the world.”

Paretsky’s final note is ostensibly a critique of the Bush administration, but it is ultimately a paean to the power of the written word. The fires of iniquity still burn, but there is extinguisher in the form of unfettered speech. And “although my words are only water squeezed from a rock,” she writes, they must nevertheless be cherished and guarded.

Gabriel Sanders is the associate editor of the Forward.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.