Years after the death of her father, a woman explores her family’s past in this memoir.
The genesis of Harrigan’s debut book is in her essay “Revenge of the Prey: How a Deer Killed My Dad,” published by the Rumpus in 2011, and it explores the legacy of her father, who died in a car accident in 1974 when she was 7. The title is a reference to a different accident in the early 1960s, which claimed her father’s dominant hand—a mysterious event that Harrigan worked to uncover. She realized how time had strained her own memory, so she set out to learn more about her father from her other family members only to find out that her dad may not have been the man she remembered. This is the strength of Harrigan’s book, because although her father is its central subject, it’s also about the web of relationships connected to his memory: how did the author’s brother Louis, who read Homer as a little boy for fun and grew up to become an art historian, feel about his gruff, stereotypically masculine father? Why did the author and her sister, Lynn, who was in the car when her father died, become estranged? How does the tragedy influence the author’s approach to marriage and parenting? Harrigan infuses each dynamic with style and drama that make the book consistently engaging, and her prose is lively and accessible: “I’m wearing white Keds or Salvation Army red cowboy boots in the cemetery snow, waiting for my father to rise from underground, as if he’d just been a bear in hibernation.” Her account of her relationship with her son, Noah, is a highlight, showing how he must learn to accept his own father (Harrigan’s ex-husband). However, she does have a tendency to belabor the unreliability of memory; frequently, she reminds readers of how it’s “Strange how people in my family have different pieces of memories,” as if it weren’t the book’s clear, predominant theme. Despite this redundancy, though, the book feels fresh and reads easily.
A warm, engaging read about the ways in which memory distorts our understanding of family.