There is a scene early in "The Deer Camp: A Memoir of a Father, a Family, and the Land that Healed Them," the new memoir from Dean Kuipers, that sticks with me. In it, Kuipers's father, Bruce, is showing off the cabin he's built on the 100-acre parcel of land he's purchased as a hunting property — for "the whole family," as he explains — in an effort to re-connect himself to his three estranged sons.
He’s been a terrible father and role model, but one gift he knows his three boys still appreciate is a deep connection to the natural world, forged in early years together spent outdoors. Bruce figures sharing this camp will heal the fractures in their relationships. But there are conditions.
In this scene Dean, the oldest son and our narrator, is there, as is his youngest brother, Joe, a troubled young man who is out for the weekend from a mental hospital where he has been committed for alcohol abuse and suicidal tendencies. Dean describes the moment:
"Dad then grimly spat out the rules that he and the uncles had made to keep the place pure, so nobody would 'booger it up': No going out into the woods when it wasn't hunting season. No wandering the place or camping out on it or putting in sit-spots that were unapproved, not even over on the USA (federal land adjacent to the property). No bushwhacking off the trails. No tearing around with motocross motorcycles, which Brett (the third Kuipers brother) had, or snowshoes or skis. No hunting with dogs at all, because everyone knows dogs run deer, and no dogs in the cabin. No drinking. No smoking. No bonfires. No visits without one of the three uncles present. No guests. And, above all, no dirty boots in the cabin. Don't bring the outside in."
As the scene ends, Dean Kuipers rides away from the camp on his motorcycle and doesn’t visit it again for nearly a decade. His ultimate return, and how the camp itself becomes the catalyst for healing the multitude of rifts that beset the Kuipers family, is the primary thread of this wonderful book. But it is so much more.
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Dean Kuipers is telling a family story, but it is also the story of his own life. How he tries to escape his “hayseed” upbringing in rural Michigan by heading to New York City, where he meets interesting people and becomes a music journalist. He describes some of the ways in which his dad’s troubles are reflected in his own life and choices he makes, his own restlessness, and the ways his efforts to impress his hard-headed father only lead to their deeper estrangement.
For all the particular dysfunctions besetting the Kuipers clan, though, these are familiar and relateable themes to many of us. As children to overbearing or absent parents, and again as we move into parenthood ourselves, we see many of our personal difficulties played out in the lives of these real-life characters. Not to mention the struggles we have in dealing with our own self-destructive siblings. This universal relateability is what makes reading this book so fulfilling.
The scene where Bruce Kuipers tries to dictate the conditions in which cabin life will unfold goes a long way toward encapsulating the family’s entire story. Bruce’s desire to call out for love, coupled with his unreasonable need to control every aspect of how that love plays out, or is expressed, does more damage than good.
It isn’t until each of these damaged men gives in a little and finds common ground that their damaged histories begin to mend. The healing of the battered landscape on which the deer camp resides mirrors the healing the Kuiperses seek, and slowly, like new life unfurling out in the marsh, or in the sandy Michigan soil, it finds its way.
The blinds are thrown open, a little dirt gets thrown around, and what has always been kept outside is allowed in. A little trust, and even more love, is what the family finds on this patch of Michigan wildland. They, and we as readers, are the better for it.