ISBN, PUB Date: 978-1-60801-018-9, November 16, 2010
Reviewed By: Joan Hanna for Author Exposure
“I want to treat this story as a murder mystery of another kind, not as a whodunit but as a sort of ‘detective story’ … After all, something has drawn you here. You want to know what it is the searchers seek among the ragweed and soybean plants—the tiny body, yes, but something more. Now this book lies open before you, each paragraph a stand of trees, a deep forest of wonder and darkness.” (16)
This is exactly what Bob Cowser delivers to his readers in Green Fields (UNO Press), a deep forest of a story that begins on the day of Cary Ann Medlin’s disappearance. Cowser could have simply given his reader the details of how her body was discovered and the subsequent investigation, arrest, and eventual execution of Robert Glen Coe 21 years later. Instead, Cowser has chosen to give us so much more than a one-dimensional retelling of a gruesome murder. And he has chosen to give us these dimensions while standing in the middle of the vast forest of repercussions felt when tragedy unites the unrelated.
What is surprising in this book is that Cowser manages to present this material in such a balanced manner that the reader can dive into the layers and sort out the many lives affected by this “detective story.” We hear all of their voices here: the mother that lost her child and the brother that watched his sister pull away in the car of a stranger. We also hear the outrage and ultimate cry for justice as Cowser relates the far-reaching changes to a quiet community that now had to monitor their children through a blanket of fear and anxiety
And then there is Coe. Cowser gives so much history on Coe that one has to sympathize beyond the act and see the adult through the abuses of his own childhood. Coe begins to emerge as the face of what poverty and a lack of education, coupled with unchecked addictive behavior and childhood abuse, looks like as an adult. I must admit, I felt conflicted by Coe. On one hand, I wanted to see justice; on the other hand I felt sympathy for him, understanding what he endured as a child at the hand of a vicious, abusive father. But, his reputation in the jails and court system seemed to confirm that he was a vulgar, dangerous, and out of control man even though the “people who worked to save Coe’s life could not help but think of him as a frightened little boy, prone to petulance and sullenness. Underneath the vulgarity, they said, lay terrific fear” (129).
In Green Fields, we see the young boy growing up in a safe neighborhood until Cary Ann Medlin’s murder. We see the change and fear that grips his friends and neighbors and begin to understand there are many valid voices and sides that emerge from this one horrendous act.
Scott Russell Sanders said of Green Fields:
“Bob Cowser does not blink, nor does he allow us to blink … part true crime story, part coming-of-age-memoir, part meditation on the culture of poverty and the ethics of capital punishment, Green Fields is entirely compelling.”
Green Fields is a story to be closely read and fully digested. Cowser meditates on his childhood and the loss of his friend. He also gives his reader a broader societal look at crime and how it affects not only those directly involved, but our society as a whole. This story will grip you with its retelling of Coe’s violence, child abuse, and execution. You will also hear the voice of the children, the cry of a small community for justice, and the voice of others that didn’t see such a black and white set of factors. But mostly you will hear the voice of a man looking back, trying to make sense of it all with Cary Ann’s last words to him still ringing in his ears: “Cary’s still the clearest, most plaintive voice in this old story, the voice of human mercy … She holds me to account in this world; ‘Hey Bobby Cowser! What are you doing here?’” (178)
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