Staff Picks

A Wounded Deer Leaps Highest

Liam Dooley

April 25, 2024


Charlie J. Stephens' new book explores the inner life of a child finding escape from the harsh realities of life in a small Oregon town in the natural world around them.

WoundedDeerLeapsHighest.jpgA Wounded Deer Leaps Highest by Charlie J. Stephens, Torrey House Press

Almost everyone can recall an experience they’ve had as a child where they’ve been ignored, dismissed, talked down to, or treated unfairly just because they were a child. Adults chastise children and tell them, “Just wait ‘till you get to real life,” implying that the life they’re living isn’t real. It’s easy to forget what it was like to be a child, when you’re constantly growing and everything seems important and new. Children have unique perspectives that we should be paying more attention to, especially in terms of morality—children often have a strong sense of justice, and with their new understanding of right and wrong, they can point out and question the unfair things that have been accepted in the adult world.  

In A Wounded Deer Leaps Highest by Charlie J. Stephens, we get to see life from the eyes of Smokey, an eight-year-old child. The story unfolds in 1980s Moss River, Oregon, as Smokey’s mother continually struggles to find a decent man. Her various boyfriends range from harmless to seriously threatening, leaving Smokey (and the reader) constantly on edge. At the same time, Smokey is faced with the violence and abuse surrounding them in their neighbor’s houses, all while dealing with their own budding understanding of their gender and sexuality. They find peace in the woods near their house, paying attention to all the living things around them and befriending every creature they can, from rabbits to dogs to deer. When their mother brings home a man from a nearby prison, things really start to get bad, and Smokey desperately seeks out escape wherever they can find it. 

What I loved most about this novel was the care Smokey was written with, stemming in part from their relationship with their mother. Though she isn’t perfect, struggling to make ends meet and getting wrapped up in the lives of dangerous men, she raises Smokey the best way she can. She sees Smokey as an equal and their problems as legitimate. She makes an effort to explain the world to them, to be open and honest—an intentional reversal of the way she was raised in the ‘60s. The novel took on a beautiful, quiet tone, following Smokey and learning about their world through their eyes. Every scene that took place in the woods of Moss River was vivid and beautiful, even when the situations at hand were dire.  

Interestingly, Smokey’s narrative voice is much more eloquent than one would expect from a child this young. When their mother gifts them a diary, for example, their writing style shows an incredible understanding of both language and the world that most eight-year-olds would not have. Their thought processes are similarly advanced. But at the same time, they experience things they don’t have the words to describe just yet; throughout the novel, Smokey notes the “teeth” in their stomach, coming out in uncomfortable and dangerous situations. Additionally, they fumble a bit as they grow to understand their body and their gender, lacking the vocabulary and education to accurately describe the way they feel. The mixture of elevated inner monologue and realistic, childish understanding created a complex and intriguing narrative voice. 

A Wounded Deer Leaps Highest is a gorgeous, captivating read; though brief, it contains incredible depth, stunning prose, and a valuable perspective. Smokey’s sensitivity and earnestness make it impossible not to care for them and the story that unfolds around them. It’s a story I can’t stop thinking about, and I expect it’ll be on my mind for a long time.


About the Author

Liam Dooley is a former intern at Porchlight Book Company and an alum of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. With knowledge of creative writing craft and style, he’s eager to see the lifecycle of books once they’re actually written. He can be found in DIY concert spaces, trying to make sure his earplugs don’t fall out. In his spare time, he delights in taking up various hobbies with no regard for his lack of experience.

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