Common Core: Nonfiction: “Death’s Acre”

Death’s Acre: Inside the Legendary Forensic Lab the Body Farm Where the deaths acreDead Do Tell Tales by Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson

A number of students ask for forensic science books because their interest has been piqued by the many shows about forensic anthropologist solving murders from clues found on the victims’ bodies. And we have some appropriate titles in the library. But I’m happy to add Death’s Acre because it is an adult book and is more thorough than books we have that are written at a lower level. Dr. Bill Bass is the father (so to speak) of the Body Farm, that two acres in the Tennessee hills where donated bodies are left to the elements. And then studied for decomposition. This seemingly strange, even gruesome place has been vital to forensic anthropology. And thus to the capture and conviction of murderers.

While the title suggests that the book is going to be about the Body Farm (actually called University of Tennessee Anthropology Research Facility), it is much more a memoir of Dr. Bass’s life. Dr. Bass has been involved in some interesting murder cases, called to testify as a witness at various trials. He details some of these murder cases and trials, and his understanding of the decomposition process, a process that varies greatly depending on location, season, and other factors, underlines the importance of his studies. While Bass is a scientist, and can find more humor in some of the gruesome aspects of death than most of us could, he is also appropriately respectful of the dead. His goal in dealing with rotting flesh, saw or hacked bones, and maggots blossoming from corpses is to give murder victims their due—to have the otherwise hidden details of their murders come to life, to find justice for them.

Bass discusses the difference between the sympathy he has for victims and their families and the overwhelming grief of losing his own loved ones. He reflects on his life and his loss of faith in an afterlife based on his experiences.

Professional reviewers warn that Death’s Acre is not for those with weak stomachs—descriptions of bodies in various states of decomposition (and especially those on whom blowflies have descended and who then swarm with maggots) can be distressing. However, I never watch TV programs with murders and bodies because I have a hard time with the very real looking corpses. Yet, I had no problem with the book’s descriptions of various murder victims. Neither did the few black and white photos of bones and bodies particularly distress me. So if you are interested in this branch of science, I say go ahead and give Death’s Acre a try.

High school housekeeping: Again, this book is more detailed than those nonfiction choices from publishers of teen works, yet it is under 300 pages, a very manageable length. It’s a great introduction to the field of forensic science and a nice overview of the life of one of its best practitioners. If you are assigned a biography or memoir and you are interested in forensic science, you could easily convince your teacher that this is the book you should read. I was engrossed by the discussions of murder victims and by what made the prosecutors decide whether to proceed to trial. Unlike on television, not very many victims finds justice.

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About Victoria Waddle

I'm a high school librarian, formerly an English teacher. I love to read and my mission is to connect people with the right books. To that end, I read widely--from the hi-lo for reluctant high school readers to the literary adult novel for the bibliophile.
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