Playing with Dynamite: A Memoir


Sharon Harrigan embarks on a search for the father she lost when she was seven—a man who blew off his hand with dynamite before she was born and later died in a bizarre and mysterious accident. The story she has been told about his death never made sense, but she always knew asking questions was dangerous. At the end of a two-year journey, she finally finds out why.

“An inherently compelling read from cover to cover, Playing with Dynamite: A Memoir is an extraordinary, exceptional, deftly crafted and multilayered account that will prove to be an enduringly popular addition to community and academic library Contemporary American Biography collections.”
Midwest Book Review: Wisconsin Bookwatch, November 17

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Sharon Harrigan’s father was larger than life, a brilliant but troubled man who blew off his hand with dynamite before she was born and died in a mysterious and bizarre accident when she was seven.  The story of his death never made sense. How did he really die? And why was she so sure that asking would be dangerous? A series of events compel her to find the answers, collecting other people’s memories and uncovering her own. Her two-year odyssey takes her from Virginia to Detroit to Paris and finally to the wilds of northern Michigan where her father died. There, she discovers the real danger and has to confront her fear.

Playing with Dynamite is about the family secrets that can distance us from each other and the honesty that can bring us closer. It’s about a daughter who goes looking for her father but finds her mother instead. It’s about memory and truth, grieving and growing, and what it means to go home again.

Read more about Playing with Dynamite in this interview with the Charlottesville News and Arts



When my father took my six-year-old sister on a trip to kill a deer, the deer killed him. They were still winding their way Up North, driving the four-hour trip from suburban Detroit to the country. In the pre-dawn fog, a buck ran into the middle of the road, the soft-top Jeep crashed, turned upside down, and crushed my father. My sister survived, and my mother was left to care for three small, bewildered children on her own. My brother was nine, I was seven. My father was thirty-two, my mother twenty-nine. The year was 1974. This is our family story.

We tell ourselves stories in order to live, Joan Didion famously said. I’ve wrapped myself up in this story’s shelter, the comfort of its familiarity which, after many repetitions, starts to feel the same as its truth.

I was home asleep, but I’d always imagined that night this way.

Like all Michigan Novembers, this one’s cold. No snow, though. Not yet. At least Downstate. Likely my father will encounter flakes and flurries as his Jeep climbs up the middle of the mitten-shaped state, so he packs snow boots, ski masks, and a parka for my little sister, Lynn, her own tiny mittens clipped to the sleeves. He’ll help her build the biggest snowman south of the Yukon before this trip is done, an Abominable Snowman, so she’ll need an extra pair of mit­tens too for that. “Midge!” he yells, and my mother flies out of the house like a hound heeding a command. “Get me some waterproof ones,” he says, and she does, her long blonde hair slapping against her cheek.

“I can’t . . . ,” she stammers and stops.

“What, woman? You can’t finish a sentence?”

“This fog . . . ,” she says, batting the thick mist away with her tiny hands.

“I can see fine,” he says, his tone implying x-ray vision.

Soon she skitters back in, her thin skin shivering.

Before he packs his little girl he packs his gear: orange vests and stocking caps, a rifle in the front, coffee in a thermos near his feet, some clothes and food. Excalibur, the beagle we call Ex for short, jumps in the trunk, wagging his tail, slobbering on my father’s only hand that loads sacks of apples and sugar beets for deer. Then Ex whinnies and wiggles, his body saying these road trips, these hunt­ing treks, are what he lives for.

My father has grown a beard as red as his hair to insulate him from the elements. Truth is, though, no chill can penetrate him. If a bee stung, he wouldn’t feel it. Frostbite? He’d bite right back. His Levis, marked from welding sparks, are all about work, like his tan suede boots. His psychedelic trucker cap is something else. Even though he exhales frost, sweat forms on his brow after he heaves bullets and belts to ride next to the dog. His right sleeve hangs hol­low, flapping in the wind.

He loads my sister Lynn in back and tucks her in a green wool Army surplus blanket, lays her down across the bench seat, fluffs her pillow, tells her, “Go on, go to sleep.” She sticks her thumb in her mouth only after he’s no longer looking.

They drive up Fort Street, turn left at Southfield Road, pass­ing dark alleys, empty lots, and graffitied storefronts: White Castle, Sam’s Beer Store, and A&W Root Beer stand. Then my father tips his knees to steer the wheel (his left hand clutching coffee) to merge on I-75 North, speed limit 55. He’s going 70. At least.

My father drives and drives, as the radio plays his favorite art­ists: Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Marty Robbins. The fog thickens. My sister sleeps and sleeps. The dog too, the engine hum the per­fect white noise. The road slicks as the temperature drops each mile

north they drive. My father quickens his pace, up to 80 now, maybe more. Hardly another car on the road. The sooner they arrive the sooner he can sleep himself.

Then, hours in, it happens. A great big buck, the biggest buck in the Midwest or maybe the world, bigger than a truck (in my childish imagination) runs across the road, materializing from the mist. The Jeep hits its heavy flesh, skids, topples over, and crushes my father. His head is smashed, blood gushes out his eyes. He cracks like an egg.

That’s the story I tell myself about my father’s death.


Sharon Harrigan’s essays and short fiction have appeared in The New York Times, Virginian Quarterly Review, and Narrative. She received the Joyce Horton Johnson Award from Key West Literary Seminar and the Kinder Award from Pleaides, as well as fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and Hambidge. Educated at Barnard College, Columbia University (BA), and Pacific University (MFA), she teaches memoir writers at WriterHouse, a nonprofit writing center in Charlottesville, where she lives with her husband and children.


"A warm, engaging read about the ways in which memory distorts our understanding of family."
Kirkus Reviews, Aug. 4, 2017   Read full review 

"An inherently compelling read from cover to cover, Playing with Dynamite: A Memoir is an extraordinary, exceptional, deftly crafted and multilayered account that will prove to be an enduringly popular addition to community and academic library Contemporary American Biography collections."
Midwest Book Review: Wisconsin Bookwatch, November 17  Read full review