Dean Kuipers’ 2019 book, The Deer Camp: A Memoir of a Father, a Family and the Land that Healed Them, is a book about Michigan. Its unique forests, its lakes and rivers, its settler population descended from Calvinist Dutch men and women, and that population’s stubbornness. Like a Jim Harrison novel featuring a hopelessly ornery and usually weathered man afraid to be wrong, the protagonists of Kuipers’ memoir are mostly male and stubborn almost to the point of insanity. The forests and fauna come across as equally stubborn—defying the ravages of industrialization and the will of men intent on dominion. Trees grow through sands wasted by neglect and industrial endeavors long gone in the name of progress; abandoned farmlands begin a return to their Edenic state; and wounded humans restore both the wild and themselves.
The relationship between father and son is a complex one in a way unlike other human relationships. Sons struggle for autonomy and fathers often feel the need to struggle for control. Even in the best of these relationships, there are moments where anger supersedes any other emotion. Likewise, there is almost always an undercurrent of emulation on the part of the sons and a desire for mimicry from the father. Respect and love become confused in a tangle of awareness and independence. The growing acceptance that one’s father is not as perfect as he seemed when one’s voice was still squeaking and the only hair was on their head can be a disappointment. That disappointment colors whatever the future holds for the son. How the father handles the fact his sons have aspirations he neither understands or agrees with is equally crucial. Indeed, this relationship is the stuff of literature from Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex to David James Duncan’s The Brothers K.
The Deer Camp presents the reader with a prosaic tale about this relationship. The author, the eldest of three sons, tells a story about a family tormented by their father’s failings. It is written with a sympathetic pen which has the luxury of knowing how the entire tale ends. He also sees there is an element of humor in the tale he tells. Kuipers’ story is not too reverent but not irreverent, not vindictive and even forgiving in the way time heals wounds wanting and waiting to be healed. Indeed, that is the essence of this memoir—healing. After their father purchases a hunting camp in Michigan, he invites his somewhat estranged sons to visit. Given that many of the better memories the father and sons share center around hunting and fishing, this invitation is seen as an attempt to reconcile. Naturally, there is a fair amount of skepticism from the sons, but eventually they all do visit the camp. Each of the men discover that their relationship is tied to the land the father has bought. The description of their work on the land, their maturing, and the slow mending of their family is skillfully interwoven into a discourse on nature, human hubris, and the wonder of life itself.
Kuipers, a journalist whose reporting work includes pieces on everything from tree sitters to travel commentary, is fairly well versed on the philosophies that inspire groups intent on saving the land and those who live on it. In addition, his understanding is informed by the musings of Carl Jung, Aldo Leopold and Gregory Bateson, to name but a few. Consequently, the intensely personal story he tells about his family and the land becomes universal in its framing within the construct of those who inform him. One finishes this text with a greater awareness of how nature is interrelated and how humans are part of that relationship. One lesson from the text is that this is a relationship which must be fostered and nurtured. If it isn’t, dire consequences are almost certain. The current abuse of the land in the name of profit is a headlong race to a desolate and desperate future. It is a future that in some ways is already here—which most of us know in our hearts.
Family epics are a challenge to write. Fictional or not, it is difficult to precisely construct and define the emotions and realities that motivate each family member. Similarly, it is a challenge to recreate these elements into a tale that interests the neutral reader—the reader who has no relationship to anyone in the family. To do this while simultaneously commenting on the nature of human relationships with each other and with the earth itself is a demanding task. Yet, when this task is done well, the result is a work that is both thought-provoking and a pleasure to read. Dean Kuipers’ The Deer Camp is such a book.