I’m not a prologue fan. OK, I’ve written them. I’ve never produced one that really works. When I see one in a novel, I sigh. They tend to be overwrought. The prose shades toward purple.
Get me to the story, I think. Plunge me into the action. Take me to “now.”
If you want to write a story about “back then,” I want to tell the writer, write it.
“When I was nine years old, my father took me deep into the Maine woods to see an old prisoner of war camp. My mom had just announced she was leaving him, this time for good.” This is future game warden Mike Bowditch thinking back. The next two pages sprinkle clues about what lies ahead. The prologue covers lots of emotional ground—without being too emotional. It’s matter-of-fact. As readers, we feel like we’re in good hands.
The trip to the deep Maine woods finds that the old prisoner camp cabins and barracks and buildings had burned to the ground. Then comes his father’s story about a missing German POW and the son accuses dad of lying.
“But he wasn’t lying,” Bowditch recalls. “Years later, after my dad and I had settled into a life pattern of long estrangements punctuated by awkward visits, I read about the incident in a book….I didn’t know what disturbed me more: that I had doubted my father reflexively, or the wistful look that came into his eyes as he told that story, as if his own greatest wish was to vanish into the woods and never return.”
This prologue has a lot going on. So does the rest of “The Poacher’s Son.”
The rugged Maine outback almost becomes a central character. The distinctive Maine sights, sounds and smells (I spent many summers there) practically ooze like sap from every syllable of the story. Budding rookie game warden Mike Bowditch is complex and struggles with a host of issues, from girlfriend commitment to a broken relationship with his father. (As you get to know the father, you can see why.) The back story comes out in nifty bits and pieces. There’s a generous stream of lively details that give the game warden work a solid footing. Bowditch’s career and life bounce off a series of authority figures. And, finally, Paul Doiron gives “The Poacher’s Son” a strong lesson in land deals and politics in the Maine backcountry.
Minor complaints? The heart-of-gold guy is a bit obvious and we all know there’s danger ahead for him. It’s clear he will play a role in smash-up ending, too. It’s a bit extreme that Bowditch would essentially pick a fight with a tourist-angler and return for more. And Bowditch broods a bit too much. (But we were warned. In the prologue, Bowditch remembers that as a nine-year-old sadness “was a perpetual condition.”)
But “The Poacher’s Son” moves smoothly through a quick plot with plenty of rollercoaster moves. Doiron takes advantage of the setting in the big finish and the ending turns a pristine Maine setting into a blood-stained mess. Hard to imagine keeping Bowditch away from a return; just hoping he’s a bit more stalwart, a bit more confident and in charge.
And if there’s another prologue, I’ll read that, too.