The Hidden Life of Deer by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

So, technically this isn’t children’s literature? And by technically, I mean entirely: nothing about the packaging or marketing of this book is directed toward children. Fortunately, “children’s literature” as we know it began as a marketing ploy, and to a large extent the classification of this book as middle grade or that book as YA remains a PR/advertising scheme, so I feel entirely justified in ignoring such trivialities.

And who reads only what is designated for their age, anyway?

“Quirrell! Man!” – Voldemort and Quirrell in A Very Potter Musical, act 1 part 7

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s The Hidden Life of Deer is just the sort of read a teen or preteen would pick up by accident and love. The prose is easy to follow, the narrative voice is engaging, the observations are fascinating.

Here’s the inside cover flap:

In the fall of 2007 in southern New Hampshire, the acorn crop failed and the animals who depended on it faced starvation. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas began leaving food in small piles around her farmhouse. Soon she had over thirty deer coming to her fields, and her naturalist’s eye was riveted. How did they know when to come, all together, and why dd they sometimes cooperate, sometimes compete?

Throughout the next twelve months she observed the local deer families as they fought through a rough winter; bred fawns in the spring; fended off coyotes, a bobcat, a bear, and plenty of hunters; and made it to the next fall when the acorn crop was back to normal. As she hiked through her woods, spotting tree rubbings, deer bed, and deer yards, she discovered a vast hidden world. Deer families are run by their mothers. Local families arrange into a hierarchy. They adopt orphans; they occasionally reject a child; they use complex warnings to signal danger; they mark their territories; they master local microclimates to choose their beds; they send countless coded messages that we can read, if only we know what to look for.

Quite apart from the observations, the new information about deer, and Marshall’s down-to-earth (and sometimes wry) tone, this book delighted me with its unique blend of scientific inquiry and sense of wonder. Scientific studies are incorporated into the narrative of the author’s observations in terms easy for lay readers to understand. Marshal has studied her subject, and she points out gaps in the scientific literature on whitetail deer. She admits her own ignorance on certain areas of whitetail behaviour, and the initial errors in and obstacles to understanding her observations. Permeating the whole is a strong sense of relationship with one’s surroundings; of being part of nature and not separate from it. The openness to wonder and sense of curiosity translates through the page, leaving the reader to marvel at the world of – first, nature, and second, knowledge – waiting to be discovered.

I seemed to be getting nowhere. Then one day, it came to me that my thinking was all wrong. I was viewing the deer as an aggregate of individuals. But deer are no more that than we are. I may be an individual, yes, but only in a way. Otherwise, I’m my husband’s wife, my children’s mother, and my grandchildren’s grandmother, and thus am considerably more than just an out-of-context member of my species. As such, I’d be hard to locate in a crowd. The observer would need to have learned my various features, just as I was trying to learn those of the deer. If he saw another woman about five feet two with short gray hair (how many of those could there possibly be?) he could get us mixed up.

But together with my family I’d be easy to spot. Reliably, our group would have the same number of big ones, middle-sized ones, and small ones every time. We would come as a group and leave as a group, although we might mix with others when we got there. But once an observer had identified our group, he could then note a few special characteristics of some of us… (p. 26-27)

Also worth mentioning is the story’s humour, and awareness of the foibles, flaws, and absurdities of fellow humans. On a related note, Marshall devotes an entire chapter to (forestalling the inevitable avalanche of criticism by) explaining why, in direct contradiction of the advice (orders?) of the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department and the University of New Hampshire Forestry and Wildlife Program, she fed the deer. Marshall goes into great detail on her reasoning; even so, I imagine that despite this chapter she still received angry letters on the point.

Readers interested in deer, turkeys, mice, animal observation, hunting (of either the photographic or the rifle-toting variety), oak trees, microclimates, adventures involving cougar urine and bobcats, or well-written nonfiction – enjoy.

Nafiza Recommends: The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

Nafiza Recommends: The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

If you want to decide whether or not you want to readThe Rook by Daniel O’Malley, see Nafiza’s post and the rather wonderful book trailer for the novel (the answer, btw, is yes you do). I’m going to focus instead on certain facets that stood out to me, like the way a book about amnesia, the […]

Review: The Moon of Letting Go and other stories

Review: The Moon of Letting Go and other stories

Technically, The Moon of Letting Go and other stories by Richard Van Camp wasn’t written for children, and given the high amounts and explicit detail of the sexual content, (reverse) crossover appeal may be limited to older teens – but. But. The Moon of Letting Go is intensely local – set, as the back copy says, […]

Swashbucking European Romances: The Prisoner of Zenda, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and The Man in the Iron Mask

Swashbucking European Romances: The Prisoner of Zenda, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and The Man in the Iron Mask

When we decided to have a Reverse Crossover Month, my first thought was of all the oldie goldies written over the past two centuries or so. You know the ones: Little Women, Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, Anne of Green Gables and the like; books written not for children but for the whole family, read enthusiastically and unabashedly by adults (shame […]

YA a few years older

YA a few years older

Magic, check. Fantasy setting, check. Court politics, check. Swashbuckling characters, check. Female protagonist, check. Female protagonist who saves the kingdom, check. Female protagonist who saves the kingdom and engages in a romantic relationship, check. Female protagonist who saves the kingdom and engages in a romantic relationship while defeating dastardly villains, petty foes, and the occasional […]

Reverse Crossover: The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-mi Hwang, Kim Chi-Young (Translation), Nomoco (Illustrations)

Reverse Crossover: The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-mi Hwang, Kim Chi-Young (Translation), Nomoco (Illustrations)

Paperback, 144 pages Published November 26th 2013 by Penguin Books Source: Purchased Hwang Sun-mi (born 1963) is a South Korean author and professor who is best known for her fable The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly, which has also been made into a successful animated film in South Korea, Leafie, A Hen into the […]

Hope and Other Luxuries: A Mother's Life with a Daughter's Anorexia by Clare Dunkle: A Dialectical Review

Hope and Other Luxuries: A Mother's Life with a Daughter's Anorexia by Clare Dunkle: A Dialectical Review

Hardcover, 560 pages Expected publication: May 19th 2015 by Chronicle Books Source: Raincoast Books Janet and I received review copies of this book from Raincoast Books and as this is a rather heavy book in terms of the themes it tackles and the experiences it narrates, we decided to buddy-read it. And since we were […]