Crows Over a Wheatfield

Overview

In her major new novel Paula Sharp creates an unforgettable portrait of two families that are shattered by domestic violence, and of the women who ultimately overcome its legacy.

Spanning a course of thirty years, Crows over a Wheatfield is the story of Melanie Ratleer, a judge who is approaching the summit of her career with an anguished awareness that she has long since abandoned herself to the comforting impersonality of her work. Melanie has come to the law under the massive...

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Overview

In her major new novel Paula Sharp creates an unforgettable portrait of two families that are shattered by domestic violence, and of the women who ultimately overcome its legacy.

Spanning a course of thirty years, Crows over a Wheatfield is the story of Melanie Ratleer, a judge who is approaching the summit of her career with an anguished awareness that she has long since abandoned herself to the comforting impersonality of her work. Melanie has come to the law under the massive shadow of her father, a brilliant and notorious litigator as despotic at home as he is in the courtroom. His young wife, daughter, and especially his son have suffered under his unpredictable and merciless rages, which culminate in a tragedy that tears the family apart and sends its members away in flight to their own safe havens.

Years afterward Melanie pays a visit to the small Wisconsin town where her stepmother and brother have settled and grown close to a colorfully unorthodox minister and his daughter, the flamboyant and provocative Mildred Steck. The young women quickly become friends, but as the summer passes, Melanie gradually learns that Mildred's family life is beset by its own brutality, which only another tragedy can bring to an end. After a decade in hiding Mildred becomes the focus of national attention when she organizes an underground movement on behalf of women and children fleeing unjust custody rulings and domestic violence. When the movement finally decides to take a public position on a notorious custody case, the drama that ensues forces Melanie to confront a test of her principles, as well as the many long-avoided ghosts of her past.

Written with extraordinary emotional power, Crows over a Wheatfield is a wholly successful fusion of the personal and the political—a suspenseful and controversial novel of rare beauty and insight.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Sharp's new novel about domestic violence may seem a radical departure from the warm, often ribald family stories found in her earlier books, Lost in Jersey City and The Woman Who Was Not All There. Her characters here are as splendidly realized as before, and rendered with insight and humor, as Sharp tackles this serious subject with the legal expertise gleaned from her career as a criminal attorney. She weaves a highly suspenseful, complicated plot paced with unflagging narrative momentum and enhanced with telling details. The story brings together two women New York judge Melanie Ratleer and idealistic social activist Mildred Steckwho have endured domestic violence. Spanning a period of 40 years, the novel begins in rural Wisconsin in the 1950s, where Melanie, her stepmother and half-brother, Matt, live under the shadow of her father's tyranny. Joel Ratleer is a renowned criminal attorney, but he brutally abuses his family, especially Matt, until the boy has a mental breakdown. Eventually, Matt finds shelter at a halfway house established by Mildred's father. When it is discovered that Mildred's husband, Daniel, is torturing their young son, Mildred flees with the boy after a fatuous judge seems ready to award custody to the viciously mendacious Daniel. Still on the lam, Mildred begins an underground railroad to help other families victimized by violence and legal ineptitude. Communicating with Melanie via the Internet, she pulls her into another case involving a woman who has fled an abusive but socially powerful husband. The court scenes in this novel bristle with the interaction of the participants' personalities; they are riveting. From start to finish, this is an emotionally involving story whose powerful message is commensurate with the social problem it illustrates with gripping accuracy.
Library Journal
Lawyer Melanie Ratleer stoically recounts her family story and its links to the domestic violence and child custody proceedings endured by her friend, Mildred Steck. Melanie's mother died when she was seven, and her tyrannical father soon remarried Ottilie, a young woman who gave birth to his son, Matt, seven years earlier. Melanie, Ottilie, and Matt sought refuge in each other's company and eventually escaped: Melanie to her mother's family and law school, Matt to psychosis, and Ottilie to another town. When Melanie returns years later, Ottilie and Matt are lovingly attached to Rev. John Steck, who runs the halfway house where Matt resides along with his daughter, Mildred, and her son, Ben. Sharp's (Lost in Jersey City, 1993) story beguilingly turns to Mildred's heroism in the face of an abusive husband and a legal system that fails to protect women and children. A chilling tale, forthrightly told; highly recommended for all fiction collections.
Library Journal
Lawyer Melanie Ratleer stoically recounts her family story and its links to the domestic violence and child custody proceedings endured by her friend, Mildred Steck. Melanie's mother died when she was seven, and her tyrannical father soon remarried Ottilie, a young woman who gave birth to his son, Matt, seven years earlier. Melanie, Ottilie, and Matt sought refuge in each other's company and eventually escaped: Melanie to her mother's family and law school, Matt to psychosis, and Ottilie to another town. When Melanie returns years later, Ottilie and Matt are lovingly attached to Rev. John Steck, who runs the halfway house where Matt resides along with his daughter, Mildred, and her son, Ben. Sharp's (Lost in Jersey City, 1993) story beguilingly turns to Mildred's heroism in the face of an abusive husband and a legal system that fails to protect women and children. A chilling tale, forthrightly told; highly recommended for all fiction collections.
Nancy Pearl
A childhood spent trying to cope with a physically and emotionally abusing father has sensitized Melanie Klonecki to the devastation that domestic violence wreaks on its victims. Melanie, who has become a lawyer like her brilliant father, soon realizes that the law often fails those most in need of its protection. She is drawn into a personal and professional relationship with Mildred Steck, a woman whose husband, outwardly perfect, is dangerously violent. Steck takes the law into her own hands and develops an "underground railroad" to help women and children who are in similar circumstances. Sharp (Lost in Jersey City, 1993) fills this overlong, rather tedious novel with too many lightly sketched characters and unnecessary subplots. The author, an attorney herself, has strong (and justified) feelings about the failure of the legal system to help abused women. Noble sentiments may alert readers to society's social and legal inequities, but it takes a more talented writer than Sharp to turn them into a good novel. Still, readers looking for novels about domestic abuse might overlook the flaws to find support for their views.
Evelin Sullivan
Rare is the novel that combines formidable intelligence, harrowing suspense and prose so accomplished it makes us see the world - a face or field, beetle or neon sign-anew… An intricate plot, vivid characters, moods running the gamut from sardonic to elegiac and descriptions ranging from drily witty to lyrical make Crows over a Wheatfield, Paula Sharp's fourth work of fiction, such a novel. Thoughtful, compelling and rich in detail, the book is mesmerizing.
The San Francisco Chronicle
Entertainment Weekly
You might not expect a riveting novel about domestic violence and family court law to be so inclusive, beautifully written-and often straight-out funny. But in tracing the lives of two baby-boomer women-narrator Melanie Ratleer, daughter of an abusive defense attorney, who eventually becomes a judge herself, and her friend, the good-naturedly subversive Mildred Steck-Sharp impressively flexes both her knowledge of the law (she's a Manhattan criminal lawyer) and her talent for rich characterization. Sharp's artistry makes this story as lush in detail (the frigid small-town Wisconsin setting bursts with all shades of Midwestern eccentricity) as it is grand in scale, with meditations on insanity and plain old evil swirled into the mix. And how the women use the law-and other means-to protect themselves and their families makes for an elementary powerful read.
Kirkus Reviews
Criminal lawyer and novelist Sharp (Lost in Jersey City, etc.) stakes out a political agenda in this tale of child abuse and two women who crusade against it.

In her long and affecting opening scene, Sharp's narrator, Melanie Ratleer, describes a grim Wisconsin childhood in which her father, a brilliant trial lawyer, beat his young wife, Melanie's stepmother, and psychologically abuses both Melanie and her younger brother, Matt. Matt develops schizophrenia and must be committed, and Melanie is sent to be raised by her mother's people in Illinois. Much later, she becomes a lawyer herself and attempts to bury her past in endless work. It proves inescapable, though, and she eventually returns to Illinois to begin anew her relationship with her brother. Enter Mildred Steck, a friend of Matt's. Mildred's a latter-day free spirit who becomes even more radicalized when her political activist husband, Daniel, returns from Brazil and begins, suddenly, to abuse their three-year-old son, Ben. She and Daniel separate, but when a court awards custody of the boy to Daniel, Mildred kidnaps Ben, and in the process of aiding and abetting, à la Thelma and Louise, Melanie finds liberation from her lifelong repression. Mildred even founds an underground railroad for abused women, barricading herself, Waco-style, to fend off the FBI. "There's a whole nation of women out there," she says, "who live in terror, trapped and dependent, with and without children, and the law won't free them." A whole nation? The argument that Sharp advances is that when women flee from abuse, the courts seldom allow them custody, in part because they have fled and in part because men have more power. While her novel is well-paced and dramatic, Sharp relies frequently on stereotypes and presents no worthy men to counter her two abusers.

This time out, the author has apparently decided to preach to the converted, offering not healing love or cool logic but ideology.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780786861170
  • Publisher: Hyperion
  • Publication date: 8/8/1996
  • Edition description: 1st Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 416
  • Product dimensions: 1.06 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 6.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Paula Sharp is the author of The Woman Who Was Not All There, The Imposter, and Lost in Jersey City, and a translator of Latin American fiction, including Antonio Skármeta's novel The Insurrection. Her books have won her the Quality Paperback Book Club's New Voice Award, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and the Wisconsin Library Association Banta Award. A graduate of Columbia Law School, she practices criminal law in New York.

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Reading Group Guide

The following interview and questions are intended to enhance your group's reading of Paula Sharp's Crows Over a Wheatfield, and to give you starting points for discussion.

An Interview with the Author

Q: Do you think of yourself as a writer or a lawyer? How has your legal work influenced your writing?

A: I am a writer first, and a lawyer second. I wrote and translated fiction for years before becoming a lawyer, and I don't usually write on legal topics. Still, my legal work has enriched my understanding of human nature and made me pay more attention to character in writing. You spend a lot of time as a criminal lawyer puzzling people together making sense of their motives and figuring out how their lives' circumstances led them down the wrong roads, or in some cases, why nothing led to where they are but their own questionable selves. Watching trials also had a profound effect an how I perceived the nature of narrative authority in writing and on my assumptions about truth itself. As a defense lawyer in any trial, you have to view a crime from many perspectives — the defendant's, the victim's, the prosecutor's the contradictory meanings From the day I watched my first trial, I was never able to write the same way again.

Q: What inspired you to write Crows Over a Wheatfield ?

A: Most of my novels start with a character who captures my imagination, and whose presence evokes other characters. In this case, it was Joel Ratleer — a criminal defense attorney as brilliantly abusive in his personal life as he is in court I've often been struck by how many criminal lawyers share trains withtheir clients — a love of living above the rules, a desire to shirk and trick authority a shifting sense of right and wrong. I wanted to create a lawyer-character with those traits to have him strut around on the page, talking and arguing and wreaking havoc in a bleak Wisconsin landscape. Once Ratleer was finished, I felt compelled to invent a character who could take him an — and that's how Mildred Steck came to be.

Q: Would you say Mildred is a typical battered wife?

A: I don't believe there's such a thing as a typical battered wife — any woman can end up in a bad situation with a violent partner, especially if she marries young, or before she really knows how to size up someone who's dangerous. I wanted Mildred to be strong and lively with her own engaging eccentricities, quite capable of laughter, and existing fully apart from her brush with domestic violence — in short, a rich, vivid character, not a stereotype. She began with the line, "We are fighting the devil, and the devil is the law," and I built her from there: I longed to construct a believable person who would say and relish those words, who could start a riot if necessary.

Q: Many reviewers have praised the novel's comic aspects, and some called it straight out funny in parts. How do you reconcile using humor with such a tragic subject?

A: The best comedy has real knowledge of grief behind it. So, I never would have seen a serious subject as ruling out humor Toni Morrison has a great passage in Sula about laughter: to really appreciate its meaning, she advises, you must hear the pain behind it, and you also have to understand that laughter is part of the pain.

Reading Group Discussion Points
  1. What is Mrs. Lookingbell's role? Does her visit to the Ratleer's home have special significance? Is she symbolic of domestic violence, or of a legal system gone awry?
  2. If, as Melanie says, she has seen the law as "a terrible monstrosity" since childhood, why did she become a judge? Do her family's and friends' comments about her work accurately highlight Melanie's ambivalence toward her profession, or simply reflect their own personality quirks?
  3. What is the significance of Van Gogh's painting, Crows Over a Wheatfield, in the novel? What does Matt's statement that Hendrix's music, like the painting, "understands him," reveal about Matt? How does the "craziness" of Van Gogh's painting and of the residents of Steck's halfway house echo or parody the "craziness" of the law and the media that feeds on legal dramas?
  4. What effect does Mildred have on Melanie before the facts of Mildred's private life come to light? Why does the resolution of Mildred's court case occur in the locked storeroom of the Pferd Beer Factory?
  5. Is Daniel a kind of devil? Is he a sociopath? What is Daniel's relationship with the legal system? What does the Railroad mean when it announces, "We are fighting the devil and the devil is the law"?
  6. Is Nachtwey a character, or a comic foil for an American "type"? In serving as a commentary on the legal drama that enfolds, how does he resemble Mrs. Lookingbell?
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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 14, 2000

    Reading Group Alert! Spellbinding Novel!

    This book is just what the critics said it was -- riveting. The characters are so real and three-dimensional. I haven't cared this much about characters in a book since the first time I read John Irving. When the book was done, I wanted to start it over again. This novel is beautifully written as well, and also, in that style that only Paula Sharp knows how to pull off -- it's very funny in the most unexpected places. Also, I think all women should read this book, because it's a real lesson in how our courts look from the bottom up, if you (or a friend or a loved one) suddenly find yourself in a custody case, or dealing with domestic violence.

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