Friday, June 25, 2021

The Field is White: A Book Review

The sole convert of a young Mormon missionary in Sweden dies. John, the missionary, ends up snowbound with the estranged daughter and wife of the deceased as John attempts to make arrangements for what will be a paltry funeral for Emil, a man both large and small in his significance. Confined by cold and an ongoing blizzard, the people populating The Field is White face memories, regrets, revelations, and quiet longings.

This novel, written by Claire Akebrand and published by KERNPUNKT Press, is a slow burn of a read with complicated characters, an atmospheric style, and a tragic sense of what can happen when we, inevitably, invite others into our lives.

The publishers explain on their website that the point of the press “is to discover the heart of unique literature and art,” and they’ve done just that with The Field is White. It’s the kind of book that might only find its champion in a small press as, sadly, the bigger publishers are driven more and more by concerns of plots, profits, and platforms.

More and more, what we will refer to as important literature will be released from small presses, as the large presses operate like what we have seen in the growingly risk-adverse Hollywood.

And the advocating small presses will need our support in the way of word-of-mouth marketing and sales. It's what I'm trying to do with each book review.

I adored reading The Field is White. If you’re looking for a page-turning plot, you will not find it here; although, even with its languid meandering, I found myself turning pages fairly quickly. I was drawn into the book for the best reason of all… because the characters felt real, lifted from life to reveal themselves to the reader as each deal with what we all deal with – the compromises and small passions that comprise the bulk of our living.

The fact that this slow burn ends in an inevitable and tragic conflagration of events is all the more surprising and satisfying. It very closely mirrors life and its tendency to relegate us to the mundane to the point that we forget that tragedy is only a poor choice or two away from invading our existence.

In an interview on Big Other, Jesi Buell, chief editor and steward of KERNPUNKT, said, “We are less concerned with plot and more concerned with phrasing and creativity.” That aspect of KERNPUNKT’s publishing philosophy shines through in The Field is White. 

Read the full interview with Buell: here

And another interview: here

While reading, I must have dog-eared over 25 different pages for possible quotes to include in my review.


It’s an overused word in book reviews, but I use it in earnest when I say that Akebrand’s language and turn of phrase is quite stunning.

In an early scene, the missionary looks out the window:

“John watches the landscape disappear under a clumsier one of snow. Under the snow, things become caricatures, their shapes exaggerated and blown up. The backyard, more like a giant’s yard. The pond—not even an indentation where it had been. The dog’s prints already unmade.”

As someone from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where winter can start in October and sometimes end in May, I very much felt the accuracy of the above passage.

In an interview, Hemingway once reportedly said, “I want to write like Cezanne paints.” Hemingway may have wanted to do it, but Akebrand often does it, seemingly effortlessly.

In the following passage, she describes an impressionistic memory John has of he and his brother walking as young boys:

“They heard a gravel sound in the distance. A cloud of dirt rose on the road before the car became visible. It passed them. A girl and a poodle in the backseat looked out of the window at the two brothers squinting in the noon heat. Her eyes clung to them as if they were phantoms walking down an endless road. George and John coughed at the dirt cloud the car was leaving behind. John covered his eyes from the violent sun. A deep sunburn was beginning to flower across his cheeks.”

And just as much as her words can move like brush strokes, they can also produce profound philosophy: 

“When you are born, you splash into a sea of time. Time is a calm sea when you are a child. It begins to knock you about like rapids sooner or later. Old age feels like a swamp. We all drown in time eventually. No one can survive too much time.

People say that one runs out of time. But time gets into one’s lungs like water.”

Recently, I had an editor tell me that all similes must be expunged. Absolutes like that have always troubled me. Look at this simile of Akebrand’s to describe the distant sound of howling coyotes:

“Coyotes screeched in the distance over the hills and they sounded like thirty children wailing for home.”

Camping on Michigan’s Pigeon River while fly fishing, I have often been woken by the howling of coyotes, and I can’t think of a better way to describe their haywire racket.

The Field is White is a masterful book. You should purchase it for its use of language alone. You should purchase it directly from KERNPUNKT’s site to cut out the middleman that is the greedy Amazonopoly.

Get it: here

But, if you must, get it: here

In short, just get it.

Jeff "Van" Vande Zande is an English professor at Delta College in Michigan. His latest novel, Rules of Order, is now out through Montag Press and available: here.

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