Friday, January 29, 2010

'Hardball' Makes Chicago History and the 1966 Race Riots Personal

The year was 1966. Martin Luther King was still alive, and race riots occurred on a regular basis as civil rights activists worked to erase the lines that divided black from white. Thousands joined King in Chicago's Marquette Park to challenge the idea of -- and actual laws supporting -- "white neighborhoods" by forcing their way into them and confronting the problem head-on. King and his marchers were met by protestors who threw objects at them; at one point King was hit by a flying brick.

Sara Paretsky worked in Chicago that summer as part of a community service program. Her own experiences and her memory of that time led her to write Hardball, the newest novel in the V.I. Warshawski mystery series.

Thirteen books and almost thirty years have brought V.I., or Vic as she is often called, to a new place in terms of maturity and spunk. She still mourns the early deaths of her mother and father; these feelings are present in almost every Warshawski book, but more so in this novel. Hardball is the novel in which Vic realizes that no daddy is as perfect as his little girl believes him to be, and it is one of the most difficult reckonings she has dealt with thus far. As an only daughter (not only child, but the only girl), I found myself brought to tears at Paretsky's descriptions of V.I.'s memories and her deeply-felt love for her father. More than just love, Warshawski has an admiration for her father that has carried her through hard times; when his character comes into question, it threatens the foundation on which she has built her life.

V.I. is hired by an elderly black woman to find a son she cares little about; rather, it is her sister -- the boy's aunt -- who wants to know if he is still alive. As V.I. begins her work on the case, she is joined in Chicago by her young cousin Petra. Petra has come to Chicago to work on a promising young candidate's Senate campaign. As V.I. and Petra's lives become more entangled, so do their missions. V.I. finds herself the target of a breaking-and-entering, a fire bomb, and threats from a Southside gang called the Anacondas as she tries to navigate the terrain of a forty-year-old missing person case. In the meantime, V.I. finds that Petra and her political work somehow tie into her case. Eventually, V.I. is forced to revisit the day in Marquette Park when King marched and a young civil rights worker was killed -- a day in which her policeman father and his buddies were patrolling the south Chicago streets and managing the riot that occurred.

As she blends factual history with V.I.'s fictional story, Paretsky creates a world of intrigue. Never has she forced readers to become so involved with a story she has written by making the history of the city of Chicago so personal to her lead detective.

Start at the beginning with the complete list of Paretsky's V. I. Warshawski novels. NPR named this novel one of the top five mysteries of the year, along with Sue Grafton's U is for Undertow. You can read the first chapter or listen to Paretsky read from the novel on the author's website.

And for a fun blast-from-the-past, V.I.'s only venture onto the big screen (from 1991's movie starring Kathleen Turner):

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