I had intended to read Danger from Deer for #Germanlit month – joyfully pulling it from the shelves – so intrigued by the title, I ignored the other two Vicki Baum novels I had tbr. After I had read about thirty pages (and was hooked) I began to question whether the novel had been written in German. The American setting, and something about the way it was written made it not seem at all like a novel in translation. I turned to Wikipedia – it seems that all of Vicki Baum’s post war novels were written in English. Oh, well I can’t therefore claim to have joined in GermanLit month after all – and won’t have time for anything else. The intention was there –perhaps next year.
The title which so intrigued me is taken from a sign that was apparently displayed in Bushy park.
“Danger from Deer
The public are warned that it is dangerous at all times to go close to these animals. The danger is especially great during the rutting season.”
It is difficult to imagine shy, gentle, soft eyed little deer as ever being dangerous. In Danger from Deer, Vicki Baum created a monstrous character, whose tiny stature and doe-eyed beauty belies her true nature.
Mrs Ann Ambros is a tiny, frail looking elderly lady, who around the end of the second world war, is aided by a porter as she steps up into a railway car in California. Aboard the train she is further aided by the family lawyer and his friend a Major Ryerson, as she impatiently awaits the arrival of her step-daughter Joy. Mrs Ambros and Joy are embarking upon a journey to meet Mrs Ambros’s son Charles, Joy’s adored half-brother, it’s a journey which will result in trouble for Charles, and once aboard the train Joy is quick to plead with her mother to change her plans.
We quickly get a sense of how things are for Joy, shackled to her manipulative mother – her best years behind her, at least one romance spoiled for her. Joy is determined that Charles’s life with his wife will not be similarly ruined by their mother’s spiteful interference. Later, with Ann claiming to be unable to sleep aboard the train, and claiming the attention she feels is her due, she and Joy go out onto the small gated viewing platform, as the train hurtles on its way. In a moment of frustrated madness Joy pushes her step-mother from the platform, before rushing inside to raise the alarm.
As Ann Ambros (seemingly indestructible) lies shaken and confused where she fell, she imagines she can hear her dead husband’s voice.
“A great thundering, roaring noise fell down from above and out of it the voice was calling:
‘Yes. Here I am,’ Mrs Ambros answered meekly and with great effort she opened her eyes. Even then she could only see a borderless great nothing spinning around her in crazy circles, as though she were being rolled away in a black barrel. Dizzily she contemplated that this black nothing wherein she was trundled along was probably what the magazines called the Outer Spaces and it made her dimly wonder how she had ever arrived here.”
Memories come rushing in – and we are taken back to the time when Ann aged fifteen met her husband Florian Ambros – destined to become a great violinist. He had called her Angelina – and the name stuck, from here on she is almost always referred to by the name bestowed on her by Florian. Ann, the youngest of the two Ballard sisters, is very aware of her own beauty, as soon as she meets Florian she becomes fixated upon him. She knows what she wants, and is very good at wheedling to get it. She also has a temper, and is capable of great rage, when things don’t go her way.
“The day Florian left San Francisco without so much as a goodbye for her, she had beaten their little dog. She was tossed about by such a rage of hurt and disappointment that she had to let it out somehow and so she beat up the dog.”
Things don’t always go Angelina’s (as I should call her) way. After all, she is still very young. Florian is desperate to buy The Empress; a precious Stradivarius, and the Ballard girls will come with a handsome settlement. Despite Angelina’s utter devotion, Florian married her older sister Maud. Maud, is good, caring and gentle, though her health is not as robust as her little sister’s. Angelina makes do with Clyde Hopper, a large, older wealthy man, she doesn’t love, and lives with him on a Hawaiian plantation – which she hates. Sadly, Angelina loses her child, while back in San Francisco Maud and Florian are blessed with their daughter Joy.
In time, obstacles are swept aside – Angelina still knows what she wants. She becomes Florian’s lover after helping to rescue three-year-old Joy from the San Francisco fire of 1906, and in time, finally his wife.
We then meet up with Joy again in a railway waiting room, as she waits, shaken and frightened by what she has done. A search party is under way, and Joy is convinced her mother is dead. Joy remembers her dear father with sad affection, her mother with frequent anger.
“The bitch, thought Joy, the mean, possessive bitch! Took me away from my real mother and made an exhibition of it and hurt her to the quick. Took me and took Father away from Maud, who was sick and could do no nothing but sit there and watch it with that quiet wistful smile of hers. And when Maud did not die fast enough, she took a hand in it and hastened the process a bit. I know the sort of slow poisons she has at her command, oh, don’t I know them!”
Throughout her life – Mrs Ambros, plots and schemes, when money is needed, she resorts to insurance fraud, and as Joy and later her own son Charles grow up, Angelina controls their life too, calling Joy ‘Daughter dearest.’
Joy can only wait anxiously, as the search party gets underway, terrified that she might be as insane as Angelina hinted that she might be, after all. Will Mrs Ambros be found, and what will happen to Joy if she is?
Danger from Deer was a marvellous read, very different to her much earlier work Grand Hotel which I read for #WITmonth, but hugely entertaining and in Mrs Ambros Baum created a wonderfully unforgettable character.