"The sacred and the dispossessed meeting on the streets," is the way Sara Paretsky describes her vision of Ghost Country. Paretsky enthusiasts who look forward to each V.I. Warshawski mystery will find a different sort of book, but one that will not disappoint. When I realized the book was about homeless women on the streets of Chicago, I wasn't sure I wanted a dose of sociology for bedside reading. But from the first page, where a has-been diva wrestles with her demons, I was hooked solidly, for all 386 pages of excitement, wit, violence, romance, and pathos.
The action centers on an underground garage wall at the Hotel Pleiades in Chicago. A homeless woman has set up a cardboard box home and a shrine beside a crack in a wall that weeps rusty water which she believes is the blood of the Virgin Mary. Other homeless women join her. The hotel is in a quandary. They can't afford the publicity of ousting women who may, just possibly, be practicing their religion. Yet hotel guests are complaining. The diva, whom we met on page one, joins the homeless women in her silk designer suit, somewhat soiled by now, and Italian heels. Once a world renowned opera singer, she has been "tough loved" out of her wealthy twin brother's house because of her problems with alcohol (and for running up $40,000 on his credit card). Mara Stonds, sister of the hotel's lawyer and illegitimate granddaughter of Dr. Abraham Stonds, eminent neurosurgeon, ends up at the wall, too. Against his better judgment, Dr. Stonds has taken in his daughter's baby, calling her Mara, which means "for the Lord has dealt bitterly with me." The cast of homeless women is buffeted about by do-gooders at Hagar's House a refuge for homeless women by church officials, mental health authorities, Dr. Stonds's hospital, and by the police. The church on Orleans Street holds Bible lessons for the homeless women, lessons they must attend if they are to get a bed for the night. The women's powerlessness is frightening and real, and the twists and turns of Ghost Country entertaining and thought provoking. I won't look at bag ladies in my own city the same way ever again.