‘A Book of Fields’ by Stephen Billias

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    "A Book of Fields: Tales from the Pioneer Valley" by Stephen Billias Contributed photo

Staff Writer
Published: 8/29/2019 8:31:07 AM

I wish publishers would put out more short stories. Properly constructed, short-form fiction can be a glimmering gem. There are 25 gems in “A Book of Fields,” a delightful new collection of stories about the Pioneer Valley by Stephen Billias of Deerfield.

Each of his stories takes the name of a town in which it is set, and all of the towns end in “field”: Greenfield, Ashfield, Springfield, Chesterfield, and so forth. The tales combine landscapes of the countryside with landscapes of the heart.

If this sounds amorphous, the book is anything but. Billias deftly paints portraits of places and people in them that are full of color — and often full of humor and heartbreak. His characters are fictional yet they will seem true and familiar to the reader.

Billias suggests in his preface that together the stories form “a deceptively simple book about the people of the Pioneer Valley.” That phrase sums up a lot about the book and about our area.

Most of our towns are small enough so that we all know everyone else (or believe we do). We know the history of the people around us. We think we know their minds and their future paths in life. Nevertheless, as Billias’s stories show over and over again, neither the past nor the future is fixed.

Fate often takes a hand in the book, as it does in life. Humans’ adaptability and our capacity for redemption sometimes counter fate, however.

Some of Billias’ stories involve crimes, although they are not mysteries per se. Inept teenagers wearing masks hold up a diner, oblivious to the fact that everyone in the joint recognizes their voices.

A young drug addict and his friends plan a train robbery. The death of a woman in the present echoes a crime in the 1700s.

Some of the stories invoke the supernatural. A hiker spies mysterious tiny people building cairns near a river. The resentful spirit of an Enfield man, drowned in the flooding of the Quabbin Reservoir, swims on and on through the watery fields of the past.

Billias has written seven science-fiction/fantasy novels as well as a number of screenplays. He knows how to keep his reader involved. His book juxtaposes humorous stories against tragic tales. And he winds up the collection with a field of fireflies. These glowing creatures symbolize nature and hope and friendship.

I asked Stephen Billias how he came up with the conceit for this book, which really works.

“We moved east in 2004,” he told me. “We’re both old New Englanders. I grew up in Orono, Maine, and Bela (his wife and publicist is from East Windsor, Conn.). Also, I went to Mount Hermon School up in Gill, so I had a long association with the area,” he said. “As we lived here, I saw special qualities in the magical Pioneer Valley and its inhabitants, and began to think about a book. My models were ‘Spoon River Anthology’ by Edgar Lee Masters; ‘Winesburg, Ohio,’ by Sherwood Anderson; and the wonderful short stories of Alice Munro.

“I don’t know where exactly I came up with the idea of setting each story in a town ending in ‘field’ but right away it felt like a useful conceit for structuring the book.”

“A Book of Fields” may be the best book I have reviewed this year. It will make you laugh and sigh and treasure every field and every person around you.

Stephen Billias will read from “A Book of Fields” on Wednesday, Sept. 25, at 7 p.m. at Amherst Books. The book will be launched officially at a party at the Windhorse Hill Retreat Center on River Road in Deerfield on Saturday, Oct. 19, from 2 to 4 p.m.

Tinky Weisblat is the award-winning author of “The Pudding Hollow Cookbook,” “Pulling Taffy,” and “Love, Laughter, and Rhubarb.” Visit her website, www.TinkyCooks.com.


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