CFBA – Winter Haven by Athol Dickson


I’m going to borrow Mark Goodyear‘s favorite method of participating in a blog tour—the first page critique. (Remember, imitation is the highest form of flattery. 😉 )

The Christian Fiction Blog Alliance is featuring Winter Haven by Christy-Award-winning author Athol Dickson.

First, the page itself:

The Gulf of Maine lay easily beneath the mail boat’s keel, passing gentle swells below the vessel like a mother’s soothing stroke upon a baby’s back. This was misery to me. The slow rise up, the slow sink down, the laborious roll to one side at the crest of every swell, the inevitable correction back the other way as the boat slipped toward the trough beyond—all of it had worked upon my stomach without mercy.

I groaned. “How much longer?”

“Ain’t far now, hon,” replied the big woman at the wheel.

We had been at this all morning, doing only eight knots because of the impossibly dense fog that contained us—me and the woman and one other passenger, a man in a vaguely martial khaki vest that seemed to contradict his baby face and the look of perpetual astonishment behind his thick eyeglass lenses. The man chattered on and on, a bottomless source of useless knowledge, unaffected by the little vessel’s endless rolling. He spoke to the woman about ancient boatbuilding techniques, the rules of cribbage, internal combustion engines, and of course the weather. He said the fog was thicker and more widespread than usual because of a strange temperature pattern in the area, with daily highs a full ten degrees above normal while the seatwater remained as cold as ever.

Thoughts on the opening sentence: The Gulf of Maine lay easily beneath the mail boat’s keel, passing gentle swells below the vessel like a mother’s soothing stroke upon a baby’s back. Did it grab me? Not in the usual way. There was no big mystery or problem or anomaly or question. But the image was vivid, interesting, unique.

And that line was followed by one of jarring contradiction: This was misery to me. Contradiction in its length as well as in in its content. What was gentle, soothing like a mother’s stroke was a misery. I’m hooked.

More so in the simple lines of dialogue soon to come, when I learn that the pilot of the vessel is a “big woman.” I’d have expected a gruff or gnarled old man—you know, standard small-boat-captain fare. Instead, Dickson surprises me.

He also gives excellent “description through motion” which brings the scene to life: The slow rise up, the slow sink down, the laborious roll to one side at the crest of every swell, the inevitable correction back the other way as the boat slipped toward the trough beyond—all of it had worked upon my stomach without mercy. By the time I finished reading that line, I was conscious of a little queasiness myself and had to remember that I wasn’t really seasick for I would have taken Dramamine beforehand. 😀 I especially appreciated the cadence of the sentence, so clearly illustrating the very movement it described. Masterful.

The final long paragraph was given mostly to the description of the talkative passenger. Again, whether intentional or not, the choice of a long paragraph here is fitting. The passenger prattles on about this and that, even as the paragraph grows in length (continuing on for a sentence or two on the next page).

I like the specifics Dickson offers about the passenger—his vaguely martial khaki vest, his baby face, his look of perpetual astonishment behind his thick lenses. The man comes to life with the description, but more so his personality takes shape as the reader learns what he chooses to talk about.

My one problem with the first page is this. I thought the point of view character was a man. She is not. As I look back, I can see clues to her gender. The opening simile, for example, is more appropriate for a woman than for a man. The pilot calling her “hon” was another clue, but in seeing that the pilot was a woman, I had no trouble thinking she would call a younger man hon.”

In major crit(tique) mode, I would also add, I’d expect a woman to pay a little closer attention to another woman, especially one who was doing a job so often associated with a man. Later we have a little description of the pilot, but on the second page, in the first paragraph, she is still simply “the woman,” with no further elaboration. Not surprising from a man’s point of view, I think. Chances are, a man wouldn’t notice unless he was attracted to her. But a woman in all likelihood would have had some thought about the other woman on board that boat.

Still, it is a minor, minor point, and one I didn’t think of until later (when I found out she was a woman and started looking back at the beginning). Without a doubt, this first page hooked me and propelled me on to read the first two chapters, though I had intended to look only at the opening.

Let me close with this. Not only does the first page give me a vivid scene, introduce me to a character I feel some sympathy for, and put me in an intriguing place, the language of the story promises to be harmonious with the whole. It undergirds the story, highlights and illustrates and delights. For an example of the latter, you really need to read the rest of the paragraph that continues on page two:

He said the damp warm air moving slowly over the frigid sea caused the mist to rise. He said this was called “advection fog,” although I considered it affliction fog since he simply would not stop talking.

Yep, here’s an opening with promise!

Published in: on April 25, 2008 at 11:53 am  Comments (6)  
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