violence; custody law; mental illness; Wisconsin; fathers & sons
National Bestseller List
A New York Times Book
Review Notable Book
Editor's Choice, The Chicago
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
1996: Rick Kot, Editor; Pocket Books Paperback; Bloomsbury British
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.
"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."
"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."
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,
Sharp’s fourth work of fiction, such a novel.
Thoughtful, compelling and rich in detail, the book is
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
“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."
Journal: “A chilling tale, forthrightly told; highly recommended for all
“Crows is an intricate, intensively felt view of the overlooked
and unprotected and, ultimately, the amazing elasticity of the human
Magazine: “Sharp, a skilled observer of both her characters and the
circumstances they confront, has created an intricate, gripping,
An Interview with Paula
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."
scroll down to read
Do you consider yourself to
be a lawyer first, or a writer?
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
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?
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.
Would you say that Mildred is a typical battered wife?
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.
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