During his adult life, Dean Bennett has worn a number of vocational hats: He has been a cabinet maker, a curriculum developer and a college professor.
Luckily for readers, he’s also a writer.
His latest book, “Ghost Buck: The Legacy of One Man’s Family and its Hunting Tradition,” is one that certainly will resonate with many Mainers who grew up, as he did, in a community where hunting was far more than a pastime.
“Ghost Buck,” Bennett’s 10th book, traces the Bennett family’s deer hunting tradition from the beginning of the 1900s onward. The writer explains that in the western Maine town of Locke’s Mills, deer season was so important that the local mill shut down on opening day.
To his family, deer hunting — and their own Camp Sheepskin — was a key part of life. Family members gathered at the rustic camp for special occasions throughout the year, learned about the woods and waters from their elders and eventually progressed to hunting.
The legend of the “Ghost Buck” is a thread that links generations, and mention of the biggest deer anyone had ever seen crops up regularly as new family members find monstrous tracks or catch fleeting glimpses of the spectral creature.
But while the “Ghost Buck” has lead billing on the book’s title page, this isn’t really what the book is about.
Instead, Bennett explores a few basic questions in what is essentially a memoir: How has deer hunting changed over more than 100 years? What does it teach us? How did it help keep our family close? And, perhaps most importantly, why is deer hunting important to us?
“[Time spent deer hunting] had come to have inestimable value for me, time that had to be guarded with the same kind of vigilance given to matters of national security, time around which a portion of my life had been organized for as long as I can remember,” Bennett writes.
One shortcoming: The pace of “Ghost Buck,” especially in its opening chapters, sometimes lags, as Bennett strives to give a full historical accounting of his family’s genealogy and the various roles the different characters played in each others’ lives. If all the readers were Bennetts or related to Bennetts, that’s a fine device.
But when you’re writing for a larger audience, that technique can bog down the story and leave heads spinning.
Luckily, after the groundwork has been laid, “Ghost Buck” takes off because of another technique the writer employs to great advantage. Bennett had access to decades of camp records and intersperses those log entries to illustrate the annual activities that took place.
When Camp Sheepskin was built in 1936, family members began logging their visits and observations in the camp register. Bennett mined those registers for facts and anecdotes that surely wouldn’t have survived had they not been written down and uses them to illustrate the role hunting and the camp played for all involved.
If you’ve ever visited a camp that keeps such a record of daily comings and goings, you likely realize that logs such as this are a treasure trove of information. On a slow day in camp, reading about the past can provide hours of entertainment.
Another factor that contributes to the success of “Ghost Buck”: Bennett is a fine wordsmith and an avid outdoorsman who has plenty of miles under his boots. Simply stated, he has been there, done that.
When his prose takes you through the woods surrounding Camp Sheepskin, you can smell the bog. You can hear the deer blow. You can see the thick snow that blankets the woods.
And make no mistake: Although Bennett spent time hunting in other places, it was the old family hunting grounds that matter most to him.
“Despite my success in hunting around my home in Mount Vernon, it wasn’t the same for me,” he writes. “It became increasingly apparent to me that my love for hunting was closely tied to the social experience of being with my family at camp, hunting together in the pursuit of deer, spending good times with each other in a place cut off from the rest of the world, where life was simple and relied on few modern conveniences.”