The Bone Woman: A Forensic Anthropologist's Search for Truth in the Mass Graves of Rwanda, Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo Hardcover
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Top Customer Reviews
There is value in this book; the science of forensic anthropology is discussed, but I'd wait for the softcover.
In all, this was a very interesting book. It outlines some of the logistics of performing this sort of work in conditions that are most decidedly not ideal. She also does outline some of the history behind the wars - most of which I was not aware of, and found that helpful and interesting. The difference between this book and others is that Koff has worked at sites of mass graves. These stories aren't just a murder here and a killing there. Thousands of bodies had to be excavated from these graves, identified and repatriated with family. It shows the terrible history mankind has in conflict.Read more ›
This is a good book to read for a down to earth experience.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The writing style is good throughout the book, but the last chapter, which I expected to be some editorial "wrap-up" of the book, turned out to be a real thought-provoker. It's extremely bad form for a reviewer to discuss the ending of a book, and my overpromoting it may lead to dissapointment in some. However, she describes some bigger picture issues and generalities, conclusions about the world that comes from the commonalities of the various cases she worked on. Coming at the end of the book, you can see her conclusions arising out of the same piecing together and contemplation of results for society and political systems that she applied to individual corpses and grave sites. I suspect that these realizations may be one of the primary motivators for her writing the book; it's where the long string of anecdotes becomes a discussion of the world at large. I would like to have seen more of this discussion, but that may be for a later book. I simply trying to say here that it's worthwhile to finish the book.
I may be overly generous giving the book five stars, as it's not the "perfect" book, but I think it should be required reading in some circles. It's certainly one to hold your attention on an extended flight.
This is not a technical book, in fact it reads more like a memoir. So don't expect detailed excavation information, that's not what this book is. And Ms. Koff is young when she goes on these digs (she is just out of her bachelors when she travels to Rwanda). For those who may not know anything about anthropology, this is a big deal. People without a masters degree or with little field experience aren't usually part of these recovery efforts. Ms. Koff was lucky and competent enough to have worked with good professors who had connections and helped her to get on the UN mission. This is not to say she isn't a good scientist, she is, but as many in the field (and in life) know, half the battle is knowing the right person.
Some people seemed to want to see some strong emotional responses by Ms. Koff, and I can understand for most people excavating a mass grave in Rwanda would be horribly traumatic. But this is why some people do this work and others don't. You wouldn't expect a doctor or a firegfighter or a soldier to be so wrapped up in the emotion of the moment that they can't focus and get the job done. She is affected, she discusses what she is seeing, imagines what would she do if something as awful as genocide happened to her, how would she save her mother who suffers from some physical limitations making a quick escape impossible. These are the reactions of a forensic anthropologist who has worked on two long and difficult mass recovery missions.
There is a place for intense sorrow and grief. The book by the head of the UN security mission (his name escapes me) who worked tirelessly and with little resources to save people during the killing in Rwanda is a good example.
Ms. Koff's efforts begin several years after the killings ended. She is an anthropologist who knew what she was getting into and wanted to take on this difficult task to give something of the lost back to their loved ones. This is what a forensic anthropologist does. Becoming overwhelmed by her experiences does a disservice to the same people she is trying to help. She is affected, she feels the responsibility of the mission and her actions and the loss of lives keenly, but she sucks it up and gets the job done. If the Rwandans and Kosovars can bear their losses and continue on, the least she can do is what is expected of her and help them recover their relatives. And this is what she does.
She's competent,confident, but young and you can see the issues that occur when a small group of people are doing dangerous and emotionally wrenching work. This book is a must for anthropology students, especially those wanting to work in mass disaster and human rights situations.
One regular criticism of the book seems to be that Koff expresses no moments of emotion in the field, whereas she experiences major frustration over certain perceived iniquities in the organization of the excavations. I believe that Koff herself more than addresses this seeming dichotomy when she stresses, early on in the book, her love of her work and her ability to find some measure of peculiar tranquility in excavating the graves, a sense of being party to an act of absolute justice.
Given that approach, I don't think that her apparent lack of emotional trauma in the field is so hard to understand, and her frustrations with the bureaucratic nature of field operations is also in sync with other memoirs written by various NGO or UN workers. I would also suspect that often, professional detachment in the field creates stress that is released via frustrations with intra-staff relations outside of it. Koff was a woman who wished to be completely engaged by her work: the reality of disturbances to that immersion naturally emerge in the text.
With that said, the book itself is no classic; it lacks a sense of greater purpose, or a concept of her work's place in the greater whole. It is field-focused and neither particularly revelatory or particularly insightful.
However, to those interested in humanitarian efforts and in world events, it is an accessible and interesting look into the grisly and yet absolutely necessary work of documenting war crimes' dead.
Take the Bone Woman for what it is: a rare opportunity to get a hands-on feel of what is for most of us and almost unimaginable profession. As an opportunity to see a window into that world, it has value indeed.