Bookworm: ‘Fields’ offers excitement, also a bit overwhelming

‘Our Grateful Dead’ is great for anyone who ponders the continuation of life beyond death

Terri Schlichenmeyer
Columnist

“The Fields: A Novel”

  • By Erin Young
  • c. 2022, Flatiron Books
  • $27.99, 352 pages

Have you taken your meds yet today? Everybody, it seems, is on something or other: pills for blood pressure, heart health, asthma, or chemo. Pills for your eyes. Pills for your bones. Pink ones for aches, red ones for sinus issues, purple ones for stomach problems, and in the new book “The Fields” by Erin Young, some white ones for murder.

“The Fields: A Novel” by Erin Young.

She smelled the body long before she saw it. As Sheriff of Black Hawk County, Iowa, Riley Fisher had seen corpses before but this one really shook her. The dead woman had been nearly ripped apart before she died in an Iowa cornfield, but what bothered Fisher more was that she knew the deceased.

Years before, Riley Fisher had been best friends with Chloe Clark and her little sister, Mia. The girls had been like sisters when the older two had been in high school, but a secret blew them apart and ruined their childhoods. And now, Fisher was looking at her friend, dead.

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Who would kill someone as nice as Chloe Clark Miller? And what was she doing in the middle of a cornfield that she didn't own? Those were two questions that Sheriff Fisher had to know, but others at her workplace had reservations: could Fisher keep her long-ago friendship with the dead woman out of the equation?

“The Fields: A Novel” by Erin Young.

And then another body was found nearby, mutilated in a way that was similar, and with a few more clues. It was unlikely that the two dead women knew one another, but Chloe's husband might've known more than he was telling. Some down-on-their-luck local addicts talked about a white van that had been seen snatching people off the street, while others whispered about a “terrorist” organization that was working against an incumbent politician with ties to a powerful corporate seed company. Then a teenage girl went missing, her mother disappeared, and the sister of a Black Hawk County farmer couldn't be found.

And neither could Sheriff Fisher's niece ...

For fans of thrillers, “The Fields” has everything you want: some twists and switches, a little angst, a couple of McGuffins, and some perfectly gruesome corpses.

But there are some things that are going to rankle you, too.

First, there are too many characters inside this book – at least twenty names to remember, some of which are just outside the main circle but are nonetheless important. The “secret” that riles Riley Fisher ekes out slower than an ice melt in January, and once it's (finally!) revealed, it's pretty tame – especially when that thread is up against the four much bigger plots that weave inside this one book. All that leaves readers with the feeling of being surrounded by five stages, different plays, same characters. You scarcely know where to look next.

You can look for “The Fields” – indeed, author Erin Young adds authenticity to her location and the solving – but the tornado of plots and characters are really pretty overwhelming. You might enjoy the excitement of this book, or it might be too much to swallow.

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“Our Grateful Dead: Stories of Those Left Behind”

  • By Vinciane Despret, translated by Stephen Muecke
  • c. 2021, University of Minnesota Press
  • $22.95, 156 pages

You didn't think you'd ever find it. That thing you lost? You had a dream in which your grandma had it, and she gave it to you in a certain spot in your house. When you woke up and looked, well, there it was. You were sure you'd never see that thing again, and if you read “Our Grateful Dead” by Vinciane Despret, translated by Stephen Muecke, you may say finding it was no coincidence.

“Our Grateful Dead: Stories of Those Left Behind” by Vinciane Despret.

As the story goes, at some point more than a century ago, Vinciane Despret's great-grandfather took his son, Georges, to a train station and, because they'd arrived hours before they anticipated they would, he urged the boy to take an earlier train to his destination – a train that was later involved in an accident, and Georges was killed. The tale became family lore, true but not quite, and Despret wondered why she'd become obsessed with the truth of it – until she realized that Georges wanted her to know the truth.

We are, she says, conduits of the dead. Our memories keep the dead around and in doing so, the dead communicate with us when we need them. They're watching out for us and that works both ways: “the dead are only really dead if we stop engaging with them.”

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This isn't a ghost story, nor does it involve psychics, although Despret touches upon them both. It's not a guide for any religious tenets, either, though it's linked with a belief system. Rather, it's a “kind of quiet magical complicity” that is both supportive and comforting but, to be clear, this not related to anything supernatural.

She says, “ ... the dead have no other existence than that which the living give them.”

The dead will help the living deal with their loss, Despret asserts, and they can be called upon long after you heal. Coincidences, therefore, are not really coincidences. Dreams in which your loved ones appear are not merely dreams and hunches might be much more than an internal intuition...

Better look for your snorkel. Find your swim fins; you'll need them before you start “Our Grateful Dead.” Yes, it's that deep.

Indeed, author Vinciane Despret practically, subtly demands that you absorb a paragraph or two of her book before taking time to reflect on what you've read. To get you to do that, she uses personal family lore to draw readers into her journey, thus launching a thousand points to ponder.

At face value, this can seem a little new-agey, but Despret deflects that in so many ways. She indicates that we control what happens, more so than do our lost loved ones, which takes any Spooky Level down a few notches. It also helps that Despret is enthusiastic about cross-world communication, presenting it as comforting and helpful, rather than spiritual.

This philosophical book is great for anyone who ponders the continuation of life beyond death, but beware the depth of its concepts. If you're not ready for some serious thinking, read “Our Grateful Dead” and you might find yourself lost.

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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books. Read past columns at marconews.com.