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Book Public: 'Poor Deer' by Claire Oshetsky

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“Poor dear” is what grown-ups say when someone they know has experienced some unimaginable tragedy. Four-year-old Margaret misunderstands and begins to imagine a massive, even monstrous deer (d-e-e-r) whenever anyone utters the head-shaking and teeth-sucking and pitying description—most often about their neighbor Ruby, who is never the same after her four-year old daughter Agnes dies. About Agnes, they also say that she has “gone to a better place,” another utterance that Margaret has a difficult time fathoming.

It is this title creature in Claire Oshetsky’s novel “Poor Deer”--this huge, cloven-hooved, loud-mouthed deer—that is something of a mainstay in Margaret’s life–even a dozen years later when Margaret is staying in a Motor Lodge trying to write out a confession about what really occurred when Agnes died all those years ago with Poor Deer urging her on to confess her guilt and responsibility in the incident that ended Agnes’ life.

And the many varying drafts of that confession are what fill the pages of this book, as Margaret–at age 16 now–is determined to tell everyone—and figure out for herself—what really happened the day Agnes died.

There is much more blame to go around, including in the direction of Ruby and her estranged husband. Even a teacher near the girls’ homes finds reason to feel guilty–although his interaction with the girls who were too young to attend school when the accident occurred, was fleeting.

Margaret’s many versions of the story she tells herself over the years and in those drafts she pens in the motel room have outcomes that are wide-ranging.

A small stint in a hospital soon after the death of Agnes leaves Margaret a very young amputee. Even though the doctor asserts that she should have died of sepsis or possibly even lost more than her index finger, her mother cannot shake the terrible feeling that Margaret had something to do with Agnes’ death. She becomes aloof, cold, unfeeling toward the little girl who is left alone to figure out the yawning losses all around her.

Some of those losses are borne of the spaces the characters inhabit. They are in a depressed town where the mill is the main source of employment and a constant sulfurous smoke hovers over every street and house and church.

Margaret observes the ways that praying does not help the grown-ups through their grief and confusion. And this is where we see the thin veil that divides the practical ways of coping and the more mystical ones that Agnes conjures through a vivid imagination and an aching isolation.

The mill also figures as an inevitable part of Margaret’s future. Even at the young age of four, she demonstrated clear signs of aptitudes that could have led to a different kind of life. She was drawn to the sounds of words—words like “insouciant” and “glorious.” She tries to find hints about surviving her childhood in such stories as Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl. She’d wanted to go to school—with Agnes.

There’s an invincibility about Agnes in those few pages where we see her alive–full of life. And the thing is that Margaret possessed that same vivacity–but also innocence. However, for her whole life after the incident that took Agnes’ life, the suspicions, fears, accusations, sorrow and guilt of everyone around her prompted a revisioning of what occurred. No four-year-old, no matter how precocious, could begin to silence the thunderous presence of “Poor Deer.”

The fog and tricks of memory that Margaret must summon to write the confession are at issue.

Margaret’s innocence was also a kind of honesty–and she was only four. The adults in her life are guilty of an indifference that doesn’t allow them to perceive this–or even to give over to Margaret any consideration as another “Poor Deer” worthy of their compassion.

In Claire Oshetsky’s poignant novel, readers will immerse themselves in this ethereal and wondrous story and can decide it all for themselves.

Claire Oshetsky is the author of “Poor Deer.”

Yvette Benavides can be reached at bookpublic@tpr.org.