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The Deer in the Mirror.

Book Review: The Deer in the Mirror, By Cary Holladay (Columbus: The Ohio University Press, 2013. 172 pp.)

With the release of The Deer in the Mirror last June by the Ohio State University Press, Cary Holladay continues to map the region of Virginia in which she grew up. Like the Yoknapatawpha County of Faulkner, this is a region Holladay knows intimately, and like the Delta of Welty, it is a homeland Holladay loves ardently. She deploys the region as a backdrop for characters whose inner lives put them at odds with their societies. At times, the region is so compelling that it almost becomes a character itself. Readers of Holladay's Horse People and A Fight in the Doctor's Office will be delighted to recognize the terrain in this latest volume of Holladay's stories.

Holladay has a sure grasp of the inner lives of her human characters and writes with understanding of their deepest longings, their inarticulate confusions, and their implacable needs. Her stories often center on the tensions created by a character's clumsy effort to deal with the exigencies of his inner life as that effort runs up against the restrictions of social expectations and the limitations of his own understanding. Holladay's title story sets up this tension against the background of Alexander Spotswood's Transmontane Expedition in 1716. Before his expedition leaves for the Shenandoah Valley, Spotswood proposes marriage to Verena who lives on the frontier. Verena ponders his offer and comes to understand that marriage requires her to cede her own authority to another. In the last story in this collection Thaddeus Scott tells Emlee, "'Be careful. You don't really belong here'" (171); it is a warning that Verena understands implicitly.

The deer Verena allows to wander through her home become a symbol of the wildness of her heart, a wildness that cannot be tamed by becoming the Governor's wife with all the status and comfort that position promises. In a move unfathomable to the powerful of colonial Virginia, Verena chooses indirectly to reject the Governor's proposal when she sleeps with a German volunteer in Spotswood's expedition who remains behind to recover from snakebite. Two other soldiers, left ostensibly to protect her, report the affair to the Governor, who on his return passes by without stopping. The story ends with Verena, as ill at home in the social conventions of her era as the deer are in her house, having to make a life for herself.

Nearly every one of Holladay's eight stories has a deer in the mirror, a human desire that cannot be domesticated within social norms. In "The Burning," a young immigrant wife compels a slave who is pregnant with her husband's child to kill him. The husband's son, who rapes the slave woman the night before she is executed at the stake, suffers physically when he is hit by the burning blindfold flung by the dying woman. He finds his expectations of rank and status as his father's heir undercut as his step-mother runs the plantation and he himself weakens from an undiagnosed sickness. In confronting the ferocity of his step-mother's will, he concludes, "The world is upside down" (33). Lewis, a younger man in "The Runaway Stagecoach," has his first sexual experience, but his deeper initiation is into the density of his all-too human heart in which his desire to help his fellow passengers on a wrecked stage coach competes with the sexual allures of the inn with its bar and upstairs room. Like Robin in Hawthorne's "My Kinsman, Major Molineaux," Lewis runs smack up against the dimness of his perception of the world and the slightness of his self-awareness. As the bandit who caused the wreck of the stagecoach tells him disgustedly, "'You don't know what you saw'" (51).

Neither does Coleman in "Every High Hill" know what he sees. He learns that his bride is older and harder than he had imagined; finding he has married the wrong woman, he simultaneously recognizes that he longs for his neighbor Mabel, who is rich and merrier than his wife Alice. After a mutual confession, though, Coleman discovers that Alice has virtues and an unlooked for kindness; he also finds that he can manage in the life that has resulted from his injudicious decision. That life holds the promise of unexpected sweetness and consolation. Similarly, in "Hitching Post," Jennilou realizes that she has married a man who can never satisfy her deepest hunger for a life as a storekeeper in a small town. She must step out of her marriage and the expectations of her rich in-laws to make the life for which she longs. In the last lines of the story, deserted by her husband, she goes to check on her child and stumbles only to find "her feet steadied on the familiar floor" (129). In "The Flood," Gid does not come as easily to such steadiness. Orphaned and outcast by uncaring relatives, he grows up to become a banker who is a pillar of his community, but he remains solitary; his deep longing for his father and later for a wife must be lived rather than satisfied.

Holladay's stories in The Deer in the Mirror span almost three hundred years, intimating that the struggles of the human heart persist and that Holladay's insight into them are timeless. These stories insist that the untamable parts of the human heart cannot be safely enclosed in the habitats of society; however frightening it may be to leave the expected role, her characters find that the fierce unruliness of their desires must be honored; their real lives must be lived in the wildness of those desires. Holladay writes with a generosity and sympathy for her characters that is reminiscent of Chekhov. Like Chekhov, she has a capacious imagination that accepts the passions of her characters without judgment; to that generous tolerance she adds a surprised delight at finding in her characters a deer in the mirror.
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Author:Baker, Robert
Publication:James Dickey Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2014
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