Something happens, I think, when a book is written from a place of deep love for its subject. That affection brings about a desire for more knowing and a desire to share what we know. That’s the mark of a great educator, that passion. In the novel, The Poacher’s Son, Paul Doiron educates us by sharing his passion for the world in which he lives, the northwestern forest and lake region of the state of Maine. The northern backwoods and lakes provide a living backdrop for the story but also serve as the true protagonist as Doiron paints a picture in words describing its beauty. I love that he peppers the plotline with the sounds of the woods, the prick of pine needles, the cicadas’ buzz, the smells of the forest, the contents of animal scat, the thick stickiness of a hot Maine day, the shimmer of the lakes, the sparkle of the constellations, the trout popping up to feed, the call of the owls and coyotes, the affection for even “troublesome” bears; that moose is on the menu. It is a sensual place, an encroached-upon wilderness, and it is so far away – at least for me – that I have rarely, if ever, considered it. Thanks to this book, I now hold an unswaying curiosity for and desire to go there.
Just as Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon novels derive from her previous experience as a National Park Ranger and her love for the National Park System, so does Doiron’s work here obviously extend from his roles as the editor-in-chief of Down East: The Magazine of Maine and as a Registered Maine Guide. Within this unflashy yet magnificent setting, a drama unfolds that captures the imagination quicker than a Maine Warden can capture a bear. Our young hero, Mike Bowditch, is twenty-four year’s old and a newly-minted Maine Game and Wildlife Warden. He was raised in these parts by a negligent father – an aloof and wily poacher with an extensive rap sheet of misdemeanors – and a mother, who could only survive living with Mike’s dad for nine years before she divorced him and escaped with Mike to a more settled and affluent life. But Mike is his father’s son, and the land calls him back. He forsakes a more lucrative lifestyle to return to the beauty of his original home, but he does not follow in his father’s footsteps. There is not enmity in his heart toward his scoundrel father, rather, ambivalence and love, and a desire to make the world a better, not worse, place.
Two men are killed. One is a Sheriff’s Deputy and the other is a man representing the company that will be buying the land on which many of the locals have leased cabins, effectively pushing them out of the only homes they have ever known. Mike’s dad is accused of the murders. But Mike doesn’t believe he’s a killer and spends the majority of the book trying to find out what really happened. His investigation becomes incredibly personal and he places his job, some personal relationships, and even his life, in jeopardy. Some boyhood blinders come off and he (and we) are given (sometimes vivid) descriptions of humanity: its propensity toward violence, egocentrism, and self-destruction; but also its capacity for generosity, hope, devotion, and unconditional love. At its essence, The Poacher’s Son, is a story about a man who believes in his father even though no one else does. It is a story about finding and facing the truth. It’s about bearing witness to cruelty, abuse, and other evils; deliberately staring them down and fighting them and, ultimately, retaining one’s own soul.
The story moves at a quick pace and engrosses to the point that other things (like your daily walk and yoga) may just be, well…postponed, until you finish the book. That’s okay. It’s worth it. I am looking forward to the second book in the series, whenever that shall be. And I am grateful to Nevada Barr for writing a short review of this story which inspired me to read it.
On a similar theme:
“Winter’s Bone” – a movie set in the Ozarks, about a daughter (this time) trying to redeem her family from the sins of her ne’er-do-well (understatement) father. Based on the novel of the same name, it is a dark but ultimately encouraging and vivifying movie.
Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon series. Set in different U. S. National Parks. Anna is a feisty, troubled U. S. Park Ranger with a deep love for the places in which she works (but not necessarily for the people with whom she works). This series makes me want to visit every single one of our National Parks.
“Ken Burns: The National Parks.” A 6-episode documentary series on the history of our National Park System. This series is about the incredible accomplishment and legacy that our country has bequeathed to its citizens in the form of our magnificent national parks. Thank you, John Muir!