Reviewed by Robert Runté
When my mom was in her nineties, I tried to record some of her family’s history. I would ask about, say, a cousin, and she would answer, “Nothing to tell really. Just that he ran a general store out on the highway.” But as soon as I stopped recording, she would add, “He was murdered one night when someone fired through the door as he went to answer.” Whenever I was recording, she had nothing, but as soon as I turned that off, she’d throw out some tantalizing fragment. Turned back on, she couldn’t think of a thing to add…
In contrast, the Mahoney family got all their stories, because Tom Mahoney wrote up everything. Partly memoir, partly fiction, The Deer Yard is more than merely a good read. Yes, it evokes a time and a place (Johnville, New Brunswick across two generations, as it happens)—but more importantly, this collection projects every family’s sense of the importance of ‘story’. Some selections are complete, carefully structured stories; others are unconnected fragments, the sort of anecdotes that come up around the dinner table when the conversation triggers reminiscences about hitchhiking, the family dog, or the high price of groceries. The anecdotes aren’t anything, just random bits of jetsam that float to the surface to become part of family history—but those are the shared memories that become the cornerstone of character and identity.
For example, “Big Money” explains why the family chose not to expand the farm, even as their neighbours mechanized. In eight paragraphs, it’s a concise character sketch, a manifesto of traditional Mahoney values, a lesson in economics, and a wide-ranging critique of our modern obsession with ‘growth.’ “We Were Four” and “Biscuits” aren’t merely amusing anecdotes about a well-timed putdown, but miniature morality tales. Individually, they appear as nothing much, but woven together and repeated at enough family dinners, these are the stories that shape one’s worldview and sets our expectations for behaviour.
The longer entries are more literary narratives, the sort of stories that address the big issues for individuals and their communities. My favourite was the perfectly structured “Next in Line”, about the town’s cold case. Our protagonist awaits his turn at the barber’s while each of the preceding customers contributes their first-hand experience of the now long-missing victim of a probable murder. If I were teaching structure, pacing, atmosphere or point of view to a writing class, I might well choose this as my exemplar.
“Fencing” starts out as a comfortable story of farm life and subtly slips into the dad recounting the murders that explain why the camp next door was abandoned. “Burnt Hill Brook” starts out as a pleasant walk in the woods, and then suddenly—not so much. “Mary O’Halloran” is an out and out ghost story. . .with some insights into rural life, class divisions, and morality. Every family or community has its share of trauma, and even second or third hand, those stories build courage and resilience.
Other stories are about encounters with deer, bears, hitchhikers, drunks, bullies, and a child prostitute, with the appropriate response to the surprise scenario. Others still are wryly humorous, like the obvious solution to the problem in “The Log Drive” or the face-palm-worthy reveal in “Fishing.”
The few poems fell flat for me and the treasured, real-life letter from a brother struck me as too self-referential for outsiders to appreciate. I fully understand, however, the family’s desire to get all of Tom’s work together in one volume. I don’t begrudge them these inclusions, given that the rest are well-written, gentle stories, well worth reading.
If you’re like me and don’t have all your own family stories, you could do worse than to read Tom’s.
The Deer Yard and Other Stories is independently published.