NBCC Finalists in Autobiography: Sara Paretsky’s”Writing in an Age of Silence.”


This is the fourth in a series of blog posts by NBCC board members covering the finalists for the NBCC awards. The awards will be announced on March 6, 2008, at the New School.

The clever duality embedded in the title of Sara Paretsky’s memoir, “Writing in an Age of Silence,” manifests itself as a plaintive historical ache. Not only did her upbringing in 1950s Kansas occur in an age of silence, particularly for women as she experienced it, but the present climate of stifled political dissent represents to her a societal return to very old habits. Paretsky admits to “a fierce nostalgia for the sixties, a nostalgia like an insatiable hunger,” and her tale is one of finding voice, in both the private and public realms.

Paretsky was raised outside of Lawrence, Kansas, and reports that “Nowhere in the country, not even in Berkeley or Madison, was the reaction to the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, or the anti-war movement as violent as it was in my home town.” She spent the summer of 1966 in Chicago, when Martin Luther King Jr. was living there temporarily, and the violence and hatred she was to see that August “changed my life forever,” she reports. (She and colleagues helped save the rectory of a Catholic church from being burnt down, by bare-handedly pulling away flaming carpets that had been banked around it, on a day of rampaging mobs that left King saying, “I have never in my life seen such hate, not in Mississippi, or Alabama.”)

It is the voice of witness in particular that engages Paretsky. She is best known, of course, for her detective novels featuring V.I. Warshawski, who grew up in a tiny bungalow in Chicago’s south side. “I hate feeling powerless. I hate my detective to be powerless. But I can’t have her act like a Robert Ludlum super-hero, forcing the F.B.I. and Disney to their knees — much as I’d like to — and walking off unharmed, because my stories rely too much on the world of the real.” Her fiction sides with the downtrodden,  she writes, because that formative summer of racial strife “made the raw neediness of underdogs palpable to me.”

Paretsky’s memoir — formed of constituent parts that represent examples of free-standing, essayistic personal reporting — intermingles literary, political and personal themes in ways that render them nearly inseparable (to her, they are; for the rest of us, it raises questions of personal accountability in a wider, communal sense). Speaking of the hermetic insulation of the very wealthy, for example, Paretsky writes “it is part of the function of the detective novel to show that no one is so isolated — murder occurs and forces a confrontation with the rest
of society.” This theme she relates back to de Tocqueville’s remarks on the extremes of American individualism, bordering on selfishness, and projects forward again to the present in which “the American dream is of a private home with a private yard, in which each child has their own room,” and comments “We seem, in short, to withdraw as far as possible from each other” in self-encasement.

“Writing in an Age of Silence” could be read as an unself-conscious brief for social engagement, despite the fact that Paretsky is not prescriptive. One sees how her beliefs and experience have led her to speak out against such things as the Patriot Act and its provisions for access to library records, other assaults on civil liberties, and retrograde thinking wherever she sees it. (She notes that Tom DeLay, the former Republican whip, blamed the shootings at Columbine High School “on two things: teaching evolution in the schools, and women working outside the home.”) The NBCC is pleased to honor this vibrant voice as one of our finalists.—Art Winslow

Sara Paretsky interview on Australian public radio’s The Book Show.

Library Journal on Paretsky “Speaking in the Age of Silence.”

Paretsky interview in January magazine.

Paretsky interview on Minnesota Public Radio.

Review in the Forward.