A hunting accident leads to a young boy being turned into a deer in Deer Life, an ‘adult fairy tale’ by Canadian musician Ron Sexsmith. The story is less about the boy, however, and more about his village, as the witch who cursed him sets her sights on the father of a beautiful young girl and the boy’s mother falls in love with a man who had his own encounter with the witch when he was younger.
Deer Life was originally intended as a children’s book, and I think it would have worked really well as such, particularly will full colour illustrations and live readings at schools. Deer Life reads very much like a tale meant to be read aloud. The story is filled with puns (characters named Hedlight, Tourtiere, and Eleanoir with an ‘i’), punctuations (lots of ellipses and exclamation marks) and fourth-wall-breaking comments that would play very well when read aloud. For example:
Maggie wasn’t the least bit afraid of Tourtiere. She saw him as little more than an overfed bully long overdue for a smack in the behind from a wooden spoon. (Come to think of it, she had brought one with her just in case!) [p. 43]
One can almost imagine the author pausing with a sly grin for surprised laughter.
There are shades of Roald Dahl in Sexsmith’s writing, like in his description of Tourtiere:
To see him approaching down a narrow street could give one the impression that an actual meat pie was coming toward them. Roundish and pasty looking, he had the appearance of steam rising from his forehead at all times. [p. 25]
The story also reminds me somewhat of Sondheim’s Into the Woods, with the characters’ desires leading them into peril in a mysterious forest. Sexsmith doesn’t quite pull off biting humour with as much ease as Dahl, nor are his observations as pointedly insightful as Sondheim. At times, the story’s cues for laughter can be almost painfully obvious, and one almost wants to ask the narrator to relax and just tell the story.
Because the story itself is lovely. Deer Life is a charming tale with a lot of heart. Villagers form unlikely friendships to protect their loved ones, and you actually want these characters with their silly names to find their happily ever after. Witches with violet eyes curse young children, and there’s a hint of a larger story there, about witches needing to claim a place to call home, that piqued my curiosity. Finally, the cover art is absolutely beautiful; much kudos to the artist who designed this!
Q&A with Ron Sexsmith
1. What is it about fairy tales that make them so compelling for adults as well as children?
I think because we’re all a product of our childhood there are certain feelings and themes that resonate with us in some deep way. For most people, the things that worried us as kids or brought us joy remain the same.
2. What was your favourite fairy tale growing up, and why?
I always loved The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen because it spoke of an evil in the world that could change people and tear friends apart which seemed like a very real threat to me.
3. How would you compare the process of writing a book to that of writing a song?
It was completely different. I felt out of my element every step of the way. The thing that I enjoyed about it though, was how thoroughly immersed in it I became. I was in the town, I could see all the characters in my mind and if one their arms went up,
my arm would go up too. It was almost like being in a trance. It’s actually a very personal story and the closest thing I ever get to writing my memoirs.
4. If this story were to be adapted to another medium (e.g. stage play, musical, TV show, cartoon), what would you like it to be, and who would you want to be involved in the adaptation?
My original thought for it was that it could make for a great movie/musical and in fact I’m actually writing the songs for it as we speak, although it may never see the light of day. I’m a “build it and they will come” sort of person.
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Thank you to Dundurn for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review, and thank you to Ron Sexsmith for the Q&A!