What happened to Peggy Ahern? This question arises early in Erin Flanagan’s new novel Deer Season and captivates the community of Gunnthrum, Nebraska, the small farm town where this story takes place. Bored and rebellious, with dreams of the big world beyond Gunnthrum, the high school senior regularly sneaks out of the house at night to join the revels up at Castle Farm, a rundown farmhouse where booze and drugs and sex provide young locals with an escape. One night Peggy doesn’t come home.
The story is told mainly from Alma Costagan’s point of view. Married to Clyle Costagan, Alma is a middle-aged Chicago woman, a social worker who moves with her husband to his family’s farm in Gunnthrum, where they decide to stay, and where she never quite fits in. Childless, on the threshold of late middle age, she reckons with the reality of loss (five miscarriages in seven years), with how to live and love in diminished circumstances. She drives a school bus; Flanagan refers to “her bus driver voice, the one she uses to shush kids and keep them in line.” In her interactions with people in this small town, she is prickly and terse. She suspects her husband has strayed (a suspicion confirmed in the beauty shop), which hardens Alma even more. So: a tender woman Alma is not, except when it comes to Hal, the mentally impaired farm worker she and Clyle employ, watch over, and love like their own child.
In the days after Peggy Ahern’s disappearance, Hal, who has come home from a weekend deer hunting trip, becomes the focus of the town gossip, because of his history of violence, because of his obsession with Peggy Ahern. In her efforts to protect him and to find out the truth, two goals that may well be at odds with each other, Alma’s character hardens further.
Also a narrative focus in this story is Peggy’s brother, twelve-year-old brother Milo. Flanagan skillfully takes the reader into his character, charting his experience of uncertainty and loss, the personal pain, the ensuing chaos and grief in his family, and his tenuous sense of identity as the boy whose sister didn’t come home. Taking a milk carton from the refrigerator, he wonders if he will see her image on milk cartons in the future. He pictures college brochures addressed to her coming to their mailbox.
Throughout the novel, Flanagan’s control of the narrative is in evidence, along with turns of phrase and details that surprise and delight. A woman in conversation with Alma has “the open, honest face of a doughnut.” We see a girl in the local pizza shop, “her long, lean body looked like a knife blade in a pair of jeans.” Details like these call to mind Flannery O’Connor. There is an element of Midwest grotesque on these pages. Along with these touches, Flanagan’s portrait of small-town farm life is persuasive, never feeling cliched. For exposition and backstory, Flanagan often lets her characters gossip. Lana, for example, the grocery store cashier: “one of those women who knew everything coming and going, the pointer on the compass that stayed put while all the information circled around her.” Farm, town, church and school, bar and basement and backyard drinking fests that provide adult locals with an escape: we move into these settings where duty and desire play out, meeting a large cast of characters that Flanagan brings into focus.
All the trouble, Alma decides, is due to men, “though she could barely keep from slapping the silly women in town.” A judgment stated again here: “They were a whole generation of pretty girls taught to value what they looked like and not much else.” Milo has similar intimations: “All his life his mother had painted a version of their family that had fooled the rest of the world—two shiny and bright kids; a husband who blew off steam with a couple of beers but nothing to worry about; a pretty wife with a slim waist and a brownie recipe envied by the town. Nothing bad could ever happen to them, that version said, and it had fooled him too.”
Then there is the general backdrop of the novel, farm and farm life. Flanagan beautifully captures the rhythm and quality of farm work. On the very first page we see Alma and Clyle vaccinating piglets–“with her right hand she held [the piglet’s] ear across his eye as Clyle positioned the syringe perpendicular to the flesh.” A new barn, with new feeding equipment, has a floor so smooth “you can roll a marble straight.” Pigs with the scours, we learn (this reader had to look up “scours”), you can tell by their anuses. To summon her husband to the mid-day meal, which they call dinner, Alma rings a cast iron bell, useful because it precludes her having to walk a quarter mile from building to building looking for him.
You feel this narrative moving toward a reckoning, a big reveal, and indeed that comes in a most satisfying way. You hope some peace comes to these characters. “Back when she was practicing near Chicago,” Alma reflects, “she spent her days helping other people weigh their options for a problem. People used to say to her that she must have a big heart to be a social worker, and she’d reply, ‘A big brain. The smaller the heart, the better.’” She underestimates herself. Hers is a big heart, and it grows in the course of this very satisfying novel.
Deer Season is published by University of Nebraska Press.