notes from a creative writing PhD candidate
“What is a moment of death compared to a lifetime of it?”
Book Review: Courtney Angela Brkic’s The Stone Fields, 2005
The Stone Fields alternates between a chronological historical recounting of Brkic’s father’s family history during and after WWII, and the author’s time as a young archaeologist digging up bodies and identifying the dead after the war in 1996 Bosnia.
This book is a memoir, clearly a nonfiction work, but there’s a fascinating element of fictionality to certain sections. For instance, she describes with incredible detail various gestures of her grandmother Andelka, or her grandmother’s lover, Josef’s. It is impossible to know with absolute certainty what these characters were thinking or doing at precise moments in time. Brkic’s father and other family members passed down an oral history to the author, and it was her task to draw the scenes with as much accuracy as possible. But if she is recreating events, filling in the grey areas where details may be fuzzy or missing, is it still nonfiction?
It would be infinitely less interesting to read a historical memoir without all the marginalia that make up a beautifully rendered story–colors, movements, conversations. As long as an author isn’t deliberately exaggerating events and labeling the work “nonfiction,” I believe there is that opportunity to be creative, to fill in the gaps for the reader to make the story truly come alive. Even if the memoirist wasn’t actually there, they can transport us back to a time and place through vividly descriptive prose. “Creative nonfiction” is a bit of a flawed genre; memory is fickle, details get lost, and each individual sees an event in a different light; we remember a key utterance or item that someone else doesn’t. Brkic does a beautiful, honest recreation of events that did not involve her. She seems to hold back, though; she even admits this on the page, and also confesses that her father hesitates to discuss certain memories that she’ll never understand. The reader, perhaps, doesn’t get the whole story, and that make it even more intriguing:
“‘To be a woman over there was to suffer,’ [my father] would tell me cryptically. ‘To suffer abuse, to be alone. To outlive the people who should have outlived you’… The pain would burn like a slow gas lamp in his eyes when he described [his mother]. He rarely talked about her lightly, and he finished each story with the soft refrain, ‘it was so long ago.'”
While the history of her grandmother, Andelka, provided an interesting parallel to Courtney’s, it was the present-day scenes of Brkic in the fields that captivated, and horrified, me the most. The opening chapters gripped me immediately; she describes the smell of the bodies, the tiny artifacts she finds on them, searching pockets for scraps of paper or labels sewn into the dead’s clothes. “Think only about tomorrow, and bury yesterday,” one of her many aunts advises her, but it is counsel she completely ignores.
What I find interesting is that on the hardback library copy of the book, the subtitle of The Stone Fields is An Epitaph for the Living, yet the copy on Amazon reads Love and Death in the Balkans. You’ll see that the jacket photo is of muddy identification cards–presumably a photograph of evidence Brkic took in the field–but the photograph on my library copy is of a simple pastoral landscape with some sort of memorial or statue in the center. I’d like to know which version came first, and why she–or the publisher–decided to change it from an “epitaph” to the much more dramatic “love and death” subtitle. (She does fall in love, though, and the scenes with Stejpan are the least interesting, albeit necessary, parts of the book.)
Brkic is an instructor in the Creative Writing program at GMU, where I earned my MFA, but I unfortunately never took a class with her–and I truly regret missing that opportunity. She teaches courses in fiction and nonfiction, and it’s clear she’s equally gifted in both genres. I completely recommend this book, especially if you are a fan of nonfiction, memoir or archaeology.