From the Desk of Erin Flanagan: This Isn’t the Life I Signed Up For

Erin Flanagan is a professor at Wright State University. She is the author of two short story collections, The Usual Mistakes (Nebraska, 2005) and It’s Not Going to Kill You, and Other Stories (Bison Books, 2013). Her book, Deer Season (Nebraska, 2021), is now available.

When I was five years old, my parents moved from a suburb of Chicago to a farm outside of Sanborn, Iowa. My dad had been working for IBM after a stint in the Navy, and while he was making good money, he rode a train an hour into the city every morning and an hour home every night, often dropping his hard-backed briefcase in the foyer well after my sister and I were in bed.

This family lore was one of the first germs of Deer Season.

My dad grew up in Grinnell, Iowa, a small town of 6,700 people in Poweshiek County, and the move to Sanborn brought him home to his Iowa roots with other farmers in the family to offer advice, and a community college a town over where he could take agriculture classes. But my mom? She grew up in North Aurora, another Chicago suburb, where she had access to malls and restaurants and her own bank account. She’d been a psychology major in college and had an eye for design and a knack for leadership. Nothing she’d ever done had prepared her to be a farmwife.

When they moved, I don’t think even my dad was prepared for how small Sanborn was. Sanborn’s population when we arrived was approximately 1,200, and my guess is if paper phonebooks are still around, I’d recognize 85% of the last names still listed in it, and that “V” would still be the most popular letter thanks to Dutch settlers around the 1850s. In 1977, we had a well on the farm and an eight-party phone line that our neighbor, Dolly, thought was her due to listen in on.

Small towns are their own microcosms of the world, in the best and sometimes the worst possible ways. I felt very safe in Sanborn growing up because I recognized nearly every face, and if I strayed from my folks, they knew how to get me home (as opposed to our suburb near Chicago, where I ended up in the back of a police car at four years old, lost at a street fair). Everyone knew everyone in Sanborn, and while people certainly had their share of enemies, I never really worried anything bad might happen. I wonder if that’s still possible anywhere in the world, even Sanborn. 

I set Deer Season in the 1980s not only because it was the time of my own experience in a small, rural town, but because I wanted that backdrop of safety. Do small-town cops still escorts the drunks home rather than arresting them? Can kids can still add groceries to their family’s bill at the one market in town? Not that my childhood was all a fairy tale, which I hope is captured by some of the troubling beliefs and assumptions about women and people with disabilities in the novel.

I’m lucky that both of my parents regard the move to the farm as one of the best decisions of their lives, and that both continued to work at making that place home. For instance, my mom discovered a love for quilting and opened a successful quilt shop out of our renovated chicken coop. But there was always the questions of “what if” that led me to write this novel, that led me to veer from their story to Alma and Clyle’s. What if my parents decided they’d made a mistake? Or worse, what if only one of them did? What if that tight-knit town turned out to not be so safe after all?

I’m embarrassed how long it took me to figure out what this novel is really about. It wasn’t the first draft or even the fifth, but long into copy-edits a few months before its release. It’s not only a story about a couple that moves to rural Nebraska, or a small town with its share of secrets. At its heart, it’s a novel about what can happen if you end up with a life different than the one you signed up for. My mom never would have dreamed she’d be a farmwife; my dad never thought a livelihood that could be wiped out by disease or weather would feel more stable than a 9 to 5. I know some of the close friends I had growing up never would have guessed they’d stay in Sanborn and take over their family’s businesses, but there they are. Some of these lives have ended up worse than the ones people might have imagined, and some have ended up much better.

In Deer Season, no one’s life goes quite as planned—from Hal Bullard whose fate is changed at Freemont Lake as a toddler, to Alma who wanted nothing more than a baby in her arms. From Clyle who loves a place and a person that might not be able to coexist, to Milo, whose future isn’t yet written.              

As for me, I’ve ended up with a life well beyond what I could have imagined on the farm when I was a kid in Sanborn, Iowa—some of it happier, and some of it sadder—but all of it, I know now, exactly what I needed it to be.

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