Growing up as the Town Giraffe in Lawrence, Kansas
Sara Paretsky is the author of twenty-one books, including eighteen V.I. Warshawski novels. She was named 2011 Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America and is the winner of many awards, including the Cartier Diamond Dagger Award for lifetime achievement from the British Crime Writers' Association and the CWA Gold Dagger for BLACKLIST. Visit Sara's website, www.saraparetsky.com, find her on Facebook, www.facebook.com/SaraParetsky, and follow her on Twitter @Sara1982P. Her new novel, again featuring V I Warshawski, is Fallout. Below, exclusively for Foyles, Sara remembers her childhood in Lawrence, Kansas and explains how the town has provided the inspiration and setting for several of her novels, including Fallout.
My family moved to Lawrence, Kansas from New York during one of the worst floods in state history. Rain pelted us the day we arrived. I was four, and nervous about my new home: when my older brother went out with the dog, I was afraid they would disappear into the grey rain and never reappear.
I didn’t know then that many people disappeared in those grey rains. In a state with 2 million inhabitants, over 500,000 were displaced, including families who lived in the houses on the north side of the river in Lawrence.
Many of those homes did not have indoor plumbing in 1951. Many had dirt floors covered with a layer of concrete or plywood. North Lawrence was home to the town’s poor, and it was where the small African-American population was expected to live.
My father was one of the first Jews hired in a tenure spot at the University of Kansas. We were like the town giraffes – oddities to stare at, but rarely the target of hostility. However, when my parents decided to buy a house, the realtors informed them that the mudflats of North Lawrence were where Jews and African-Americans (called something rather more vulgar) were expected to live. Since my parents didn’t look or sound Jewish, the realtors said, they could buy property in the WASPy part of town – but people would be watching us.
My parents were furious: they opted out of the situation by buying a Civil War era house in the farm country outside town. My mother became active in the nascent Civil Rights movement of the time; my father kept teaching cell biology and studying his pet organism, coxiella Burnetti.
The way my family’s history twined with the town’s has called me back to Kansas several times. The rural house we moved to in 1958 provided the setting for my 2008 novel, Bleeding Kansas.
I returned to the town’s painful racial history for my new novel, Fallout. Unlike Bleeding Kansas, which was a standalone novel set in the world of my old friends and neighbours, Fallout sends my detective VI Warshawski out of her Chicago comfort zone into flyover country – America’s heartland.
I drew on my personal history more deeply for Fallout than for anything else I’ve written. In particular, I drew on an act of my father’s which continues to haunt me.
My dad was a mercurial guy, prone to numbing depressions, violent temper outbursts, but was also a meticulous scientist. He had no use for authority in any form – he came close to a court martial in World War II for organising a protest in the ranks because officers got Coca-Cola free but enlisted men had to pay for it. One of my mother’s brothers, a fighter pilot in the European theatre, swooped in and got my dad released from the stockade.
After the war, my father worked on rickettsia, an organism that causes typhus, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and Q Fever. Typhus was a major killer on the Eastern Front during World War II; the Russians spent a lot of time and money in the fifties and sixties trying to turn typhus into a bioweapon. One of their biggest bioweapons labs was in eastern Czechoslovakia.
My father’s own research hovered on the fringes of the bioweapons world. I tracked down someone at Fort Detrick, Maryland, where U.S. weapons research took place. This person looked through old security records and said my dad had never been actively involved in weapons work, but the Army was nonetheless interested in what he did; they helped fund his research.
In 1964, my dad went to an international rickettsia symposium in Czechoslovakia. He wanted to study the Czech strain of his organism, the one the Soviets were trying to weaponize. He persuaded a Czech scientist to inject him with it. He arrived home with a fever of 104 (40 C) but didn’t start antibiotics until his lab tech took a blood sample that he could culture.
Was he mad, obsessed, or thumbing his nose once again at authority by proving he could get the organism he wanted despite Soviet efforts to safeguard it? I’ll never know, but I can’t stop thinking about it. I wrote a short story based on the event for Jeffery Deaver’s 2014 Ice Cold anthology, but I couldn’t let go of it.
When I decided to use a version of this history for a VI novel, I could only imagine it in the Kansas of my childhood – the mad scientist, the angry mother, the racially charged town, the bleak but beautiful prairies. And so I sent VI there, to deal with a small town where everyone knows each other, and where however much they may dislike each other, they band together against outsiders.
In a small town, people may pretend that unpleasant, or even heinous, acts don’t take place. Speaking them out loud can destroy the carefully knit fabric that lets life go on. Dropping VI into that cosmos of lies, secrets and silence was like throwing a ball through a spider web – some of the strands cling stickily to the ball, but the web as a whole comes unravelled. I like to think everyone was better off for her throwing the ball – except, perhaps, for VI herself. She returns to Chicago cold and lonely while the people of Lawrence are celebrating Thanksgiving.