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Paula Sharp's "Crows Over a Wheatfield."

By Julie Birnbaum

DECEMBER 15, 1997:  Domestic violence has often risen to the top of the news in the past decade, and high-profile cases have made the public more aware of the inequities within the justice and support systems. Still, victims of domestic violence encounter biases in many sectors; only recently did the federal legislature introduce the Victims of Abuse Protection Act, a bill to protect women from discrimination by insurance companies. (The bill, which would prevent the companies from using a history of domestic violence as criteria for denying coverage or raising premiums, has not yet been passed.) Crows Over a Wheatfield takes on the issue of domestic violence in a compelling portrayal of the system's often disturbingly discriminatory handling of women and children in divorce and custody cases.

Written by Paula Sharp, a young criminal defense attorney, the remarkable novel combines a clear, often poetic narrative with a keen legal sensibility. The story follows Melanie Ratleer from her childhood in an abusive home in rural Wisconsin to an adulthood absorbed in the law and back home again. In the 30 years that it covers, Melanie and her brother, Matt, react to the violence and oppression of their past in dramatically different ways: Melanie seeks control by quietly excelling in her field and becoming a federally-appointed judge, while Matt succumbs to mental illness.

The two cross paths with Mildred Steck, a bright, independent woman who is trapped and disillusioned by the prejudices of a small-town court after she and her young son are abused by her manipulative husband. Mildred takes the law into her own hands, escapes the system and builds an underground railroad to help women and children in similar situations to escape. Along the way, Melanie is forced to re-examine the legal system that she has come to represent and account for a lifetime spent buried in it. Matt, through working with Mildred and the underground railroad, is able to confront the pain of his past and come to a more lucid understanding about its effect on his life.

The novel's power comes largely from Sharp's natural, well-drawn characters, who alternately draw strength from their small-town communities and wide, flat landscape and feel repressed by those same elements. Many of the characters are misfits somehow: Melanie's family is ostracized because of her intimidating father, a well-known criminal defense attorney, while Mildred's family is ostracized because of her mother's mental illness and her father's liberal views as minister of a Unitarian Church and director of a halfway house for the mentally ill.

Crows Over a Wheatfield is unique in that it combines several normally distinct styles with remarkable success. It is a family epic within unconventional families, a courtroom drama within insular Wisconsin. The issue is serious and the message is clear, yet Sharp's narrative is surprisingly lyrical and warm, and the serious topic is treated with an ironic, dry humor. Also, unlike some works that concentrate on women to the exclusion of three-dimensional male characters, Sharp develops realistic characters of both sexes. The characters' transformations are entirely believable because they are complex, expressed on both psychological and symbolic levels. In the end, the wheatfields that surround them come to be charged with meaning, representative of the change that has taken place.

At the start of the novel, the wheat fields remind Melanie as a little girl of her desolation and vulnerability: "The land's flat vastness threatens that the world will go on endlessly the same, no matter how far you journey, that there is no escaping where you are."

The final note of the work, however, is one of empowerment. Though the problem of the law's frequently unjust treatment of women in domestic violence cases remains, Mildred's underground railroad subverts the court system and is triumphant. The reader is left with the image of the wheat fields burning: "The wheat felt what it was to burn fervently, to know an anger that turned into exhilaration and joy." Sharp's brilliant image is characteristic of the course of the novel as a whole, a transcendence of the hurt and anger of domestic violence to create a joyful brand of lawless justice. (Washington Square Press, paper, $14)


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