A Son's Tribute

Tufts writing instructor journeys to discover his father's hidden past

In 1989, after years of oppression under a Communist regime, the newly formed Czech Republic emerged as a free democracy. Four years later, Joseph Hurka, the son of a Czech emigre, decided to visit his paternal homeland and write a travel article. But while waiting in the airport for his flight home, he instead found himself sketching stories of his father, Josef Hurka, and his Aunt Mira. "Their story was going to be the focus of my writing," he recalls.
   The result is Fields of Light: A Son Remembers His Heroic Father, the winner of Pushcart's 19th annual Editor's Book Award. The book, which was nominated for the award by the late short-story master Andre Dubus, has garnered critical praise from the Boston Globe to the Prague Post and was called "a welcome change from other memoirs" by Publishers Weekly.
   Part travelogue, part memoir, the book melds Hurka's trip to Prague with the story of his father's life. While retracing his father's steps, Hurka was able to draw a portrait of a complicated man and patriot. "I felt like he had been erased from history," Hurka says. "I wanted to write him back in because of my profound respect and love for him."
   In the book, Hurka, who teaches creative writing at Tufts, gives a concise history of Czechoslovakia, weaving his family's story into that of the country. Hurka's father witnessed two of the darkest periods of Czech history: the invasion by the Nazis and the Communist takeover shortly after the end of the war.
   As a boy, Josef Hurka helped other Czechs fight against the Nazi invaders, smuggling dynamite from Nazi-controlled mines in one instance. As a young man, he worked with the anti-Communist underground, escorting important Czech figures out of the country to safety.
   In one of the book's more dramatic sequences, Hurka's father and a partner are ambushed. His narrow escape through the streets of Prague with a bullet in his back reads like a scene from a cold war spy novel. He was later smuggled out of the country and eventually immigrated to the United States.
   In another chapter, Hurka visits Pankrac prison where his father was imprisoned on trumped-up charges and where his grandmother would visit daily, bringing her son packages that he never received. This, Hurka says, was the hardest section to write. "There was a grief and silence inside me," he writes about the visit, "for my grandmother and my father, and for all the people who had been here."
   The trip allowed Hurka to come to grips with his father's past and to understand more fully what his family had been through. Emotions ran high on the trip, from anger, remembering what his father had endured, to affection, feeling an affinity for the Czech people--"realizing that you actually come from someplace."
   Ultimately, the book is the story of a son's love and respect for his father. Today, when bookstores are often filled with bitter memoirs that lay blame on parents, Fields of Light is refreshingly free of parent bashing. "I'm grateful that my parents brought me up," says Hurka. "I don't have any resentment against them. And after seeing what my father went through, I'm amazed that he's here and that he was able to survive."
   Of the many people who helped Hurka along the way with his story, one was his mentor and friend Andre Dubus. Dubus read two drafts and encouraged his work. "Andre taught me patience," Hurka says. "He watched over me as a young writer and taught me to be thorough and take my time with what I was doing. Fields of Light took seven years to finish and often, while I was working on it, I was reminding myself of Andre's insistence that art only comes from going deep, no matter what the commitment of time."
   In the spring, the Czech countryside is ablaze with repka flowers. These bright yellow flowers appear to glow, creating "fields of light." These fields, which inspired the title of the book, reminded Hurka of St. Wenceslas, who legend says will rise from the fields with his soldiers to help the Czech people in their time of need. To Hurka, the luminous flowers symbolize the souls of the people who sacrificed everything for their country's freedom, his father included.
   Josef Hurka, who is retired and lives in Vermont, is pleased with his son's book. Hurka tried for years to get the Czech government to recognize his father's heroism. He has, as a writer, found his own way.
   --Michele Gouveia







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