It’s likely that anyone living in Maine in 1988 well remembers the headline story of a young mother, Karen Wood, being mistaken by a hunter, who shot and killed her in her Bangor backyard. Through the trees, the hunter glimpsed the flash of her white mitten, gravely mistook it as the “flag” of a deer’s tail, and fired.
Maine writer Meg Wilson borrows from this incident to tell a compelling story about grief, longing for redemption and the entangled agony that befalls two families.
In “Mourning Dove,” the victim is a 6-year old boy, Michael “Mikey” Young, hit by an errant bullet while pushing the white seat of his new swing set.
His family had only recently moved to Maine from suburban Pittsburgh, drawn to the state because they thought it a safer place to raise children.
The killing is depicted in a short first chapter. The unfolding of the repercussions that ensue is set almost 15 years on, when the hunter’s family finally returns from exile in North Carolina for the sole purpose of attempting to make some purposeful amends for the tragedy. Norman Costner – the long-ago hunter, his wife, Laurie, and their 19 year-old son, Evan, move back to a neighboring community to open a restaurant that Norman christens “Mourning Dove.”
He explains the name on the back of the restaurant menu: “Mourning symbolizes grief. Dove symbolizes peace and forgiveness. I live with one and pray for the other.”
He had been a top chef at a Maine resort, but lost his job after the accident and felt compelled to move away. Now he’s back with a mission to donate profits from his restaurant to support hunter safety programs and furnish blaze orange outerwear for all who lack funds for such.
The story moves quickly into territory rife with risk for everyone, but especially for Evan, who becomes smitten by a beautiful local girl. Grace Young happens to be one of the two surviving siblings of the boy shot dead in the opening scene. The pace of early plotting is sure and fast, ratcheting up suspense from the start. The dialogue between the two is sharp and spot on.
Wilson deftly handles the long setup that leads to the gradual realization by first Grace and then Evan of the dark legacy that binds them. The first half of the book is strongly reminiscent of the type of story – and storytelling – that Jodi Picoult and Chris Bohjalian favor: rich, thorny moral tales that skillfully suck readers in.
Threads that tie both sets of parents to the past wrap around the budding love story like shackles that keep the past everpresent.
Michael and Audrey Young have never been able to escape the painful loss of their firstborn. Michael visits his son’s grave almost daily, even in the depth of winter, where he engages in long conversations with his “Big Guy,” trying to find solace, understanding and peace.
Audrey is immersed in the organization she founded after her son was shot to help herself and other grieving mothers who’ve tragically lost children. MOMMY – Mothers of Murdered Maine Youngsters, has become her whole life. In truth, she’s not interested in moving beyond her grief.
Grace and her younger brother, Jeremy, who have almost no memory of their long-dead older brother, are almost emotionally incidental to the lives of their parents.
The heart of the book explores the topography of lingering grief, and the power it has to alter the landscape of lives that are ground to grist by it.
It focuses primarily on Audrey and Michael Young, their emotional estrangement from each other and the impact that has on their family. Locked in the past and the view of the world they’ve created to cope, they fall victim to increasing acts of deception each perpetuates regarding the Costers, and to the growing realization of their daughter’s involvement with Evan.
Gracie and Evan both lie to their parents, Gracie ultimately in the face of direct accusations, until finally her father delivers the ultimatum that she choose between Evan and remaining under his roof. For Gracie, the choice is clear.
Wilson deals with complex psychological issues.
If there is a weakness in her narrative, however, it’s that towards the end, the arcs of Audrey and Michael’s emotional trajectories turn on less than fully satisfying dramatic pivots. This weakens the impact of their insights and resulting changes in character.
For the most part, the characterizations of Gracie and Evan, and also of Gracie’s brother Jeremy – and of their evolving emotional valences leading up to the climax – ring with clarity and authenticity.
Wilson already has a young adult novel to her credit, and a nonfiction narrative in the works.
But I’m most eager to see her next foray in fiction. Here is definitely a writer to watch.
Frank O Smith is a Maine writer whose novel, “Dream Singer,” a finalist for the Bellwether Prize, will be published as a trade paperback in the spring. He can reached via www.thewritinggroup.com.