Crows over a Wheatfield

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Index:  domestic violence; custody law; mental illness; Wisconsin; fathers & sons

Crows over a Wheatfield

National Bestseller List

A New York Times Book Review Notable Book
  Editor's Choice, The Chicago Tribune and The San Francisco Chronicle
A Selection of the Book-of -the Month and Quality Paperback Book Clubs
Chosen for University of California -Berkeley's Summer Reading List 
Shortlisted for British The Mind Prize


(Hyperion  1996:  Rick Kot, Editor; Pocket Books Paperback; Bloomsbury British Edition)    

Publisher's Description

    This extraordinary book, described by critics as "riveting" and "mesmerizing," movingly and powerfully portrays the law's treatment of women and children in divorce and custody cases, and its failure to protect them from domestic violence.  Set in Wisconsin and spanning thirty years, Crows over a Wheatfield is the story of two women whose lives intersect as they battle legacies of abuse in very different ways.  Stoic New York Judge Melanie Ratleer narrates the story of the self-styled revolutionary Mildred Steck, who is forced to kidnap her own son in order to protect him from her abusive husband when the child custody laws fail her.  As Mildred's life intertwines with those of Judge Ratleer and her family, the judge's stilted existence is transformed by the utter joy of unbridled, triumphant rebellion.  This is a powerful, compelling novel written with rare beauty and insight. 

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Book-of the-Month Club:  "If you were one of  those many readers who felt forlorn as you turned the last page of The World According to Garp or The Joy Luck Club,  certain it would be impossible to find another book that so beautifully captured idiosyncratic joys and miseries of family life--despair no more.  Paula Sharp's Crows over a Wheatfield is about to become your next book." 

Elizabeth Berg:  "As a reader I look for a book to have a compelling story and important message or fine writing.  Crows over a Wheatfiield has all three in the extreme.  I underlined passages that I will read again and again with enormous pleasure." 

The San Francisco Chronicle  (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 London Times (Kate Hatfield); “This remarkable novel deals with some of the most difficult questions we have to answer:  where does the boundary lie between mental illness and a self-protective retreat from reality?  Why is a man who believes the radio is sending dangerous messages to him considered so much less rational than a judge who listens to incontrovertible evidence of a husband’s brutality before punishing his wife and leaving the man free to exercise his cruelty unhampered?  And how should we judge those who take the law into their own hands when the law itself has failed to give them anything like justice? …The novel …is narrated by Melanie Ratleer, whose perception and intelligence are as lively as her emotions are controlled.  Hers is a cool but compelling voice, which paradoxically adds to the drama of an already dramatic, painful but ultimately hopeful novel.”

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.”(A).

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 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:  “A chilling tale, forthrightly told; highly recommended for all fiction collections.”    

Elle:  “Crows is an intricate, intensively felt view of the overlooked and unprotected and, ultimately, the amazing elasticity of the human spirit.”                                                    
Ms. Magazine:  “Sharp, a skilled observer of both her characters and the circumstances they confront, has created an intricate, gripping,  


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An Interview with Paula SharP
about Crows over a Wheatfield

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 common traits with their 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 on -- and that's how Mildred Steck came to be.  She began with the line, "We are fighting the devil and the devil is the law." (Please scroll down to read entire interview)

Q:  Do you consider yourself to be a lawyer first, or a writer?

  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 on 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 jurors’.  You’re forced to understand, repeatedly, that a single act has multiple, contradictory meanings.  From the day I watched my first trial, I was never able to write the same way again.

  Q:  Many reviewers praised Crow’s comical 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.

Q:  Would you say that 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's 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.     


If you want to write the author about this book, go to  The Reader E-mail page.