A Prologue or not? That is the question

I’ve heard a lot of pros and cons about Prologues. So I’d like your opinion. I’m definitely on the fence. And if I do decide to take my Prologue out, what should I do with the material? Please help me out. Please read my novel’s Prologue and let me know what you think.

1906

Prologue

As Ira Schuman pulls on his beard with one hand and twirls his payess with the other he looks at the steady stream of customers going in and out of the shop with the red and white awning. Some men wear their tallit fringes hanging below the hems of the heavy black coats and matching wide-brimmed black hats that rest lightly atop their bushy hair. Their beards and coiled payess appear long and straggly. But Ira eyes focus on the men who display short hair and smooth shaven faces. Since he’s been in Chicago one week already, he decides today is the day to go inside.

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He meanders around several card tables of goods for sale on Maxwell Street and enters through the shop’s open door.

Hello, Mister, says the barber at the first chair. Have a seat on the bench behind me. First come, first served around here.

Ira slouches down next to another waiting customer and digs his fingers through his thick frizzy black beard. He wonders what he’ll look like once it’s gone. He hasn’t seen his face since his beard started growing soon after he turned thirteen, ten years ago. Now it reaches half way down his chest.

Ira gazes at the row of four barber chairs lined up in front of a rectangle of mirrors that practically covers the wall. Each chair is occupied, a couple of men lie flat while being shaved; a couple sit upright as the barbers clip their hair with long pointed steel shears.

Ira can’t wait to see all his hair hitting the floor’s little white tiles. He wants to be done with it.

His bench companion gets up and walks over to the first vacant chair. Ira smiles, gives him a wave, and drums his fingers on the bench. He’s next.

Within five minutes, a barber in a short white jacket beckons him to the last seat in the row. He takes Ira’s coat and hat and hangs them on the wooden rack by his chair. Ira sits down, puts his feet in the metal footrest while the barber turns the chair around so Ira can peer at his face in the front mirror. Through the mirror mounted on the back wall, he also sees the back of his head and a huge fluff of hair that grows down to his shoulder blades. Will he even recognize himself after this barber is through with him, he muses. Certainly the men he’s met on Maxwell Street this week won’t.

Sir, I’m Jake. What can I do for you today? the barber asks in Yiddish.

Ira laughs. Doesn’t it look like I need a shave and haircut? What else would I be in here for?

Well you’ve come to the right place, Mister?

Schuman. I’m Ira Schuman. Okay, Jake. I’m ready.

Jake grabs a paper collar from the dispenser mounted on the wall, but before wrapping it around Ira’s neck, he stops.

Sure, Mr. Schuman? he asks.

Yes, Jake. I’m sure.

Jake then affixes the collar, drapes a white sheet over his customer all the way down to his ankles, and hesitates again. He looks at Ira. Ira nods his head up and down.

Okay. Let’s get started, Jake says as he reaches into his breast pocket for a pair of scissors, and with only a few seconds of clipping he produces clumps of long hair that cover the tiles around the pedestal foot of his black leather hydraulic chair. Ira runs his hands over his face and head and feels only a short fringe where his beard used to be and tight curls, a little longer on the top and shorter in the back, on his head. He starts to twirl his payess, but they are gone.

Jake lowers the chair a bit and parts Ira’s hair in the middle and cuts it shorter still while moving his comb up the back on Ira’s neck and head and clipping off the hairs that stand out from the comb’s short thin teeth.

Now, Mister, are you ready for your shave? the barber asks as he slicks down Ira’s unruly curls with pomade and turns Ira’s chair around so Ira can see his shorn locks.

Ira raises himself in his seat and leans forward as he studies himself in the mirror. Better yet, he thinks, and smiles widely. Too bad he can’t show himself off to his family.

Maybe that’s for the best. Though he’s told Ruth of his plan to get his hair cut and beard shaved clean, she would be in shock to see him this way. Most Orthodox Jews in Sokolow don’t go hairless.

I’m ready, Jake.

Jake pushes the wooden lever at the side of the chair down to lower the headrest and raise the foot pedestal so that Ira lies flat. He then reaches into his nickel towel sterilizer for a wet hot towel, using a pair of tongs. He juggles the towel on his fingertips for a few seconds, and envelops it around and over Ira’s face, only leaving his nose exposed. Ira’s body jerks as the sizzling heat hits him.

Jake holds his shaving mug under the hot water spigot at the bottom of the sterilizer’s short torso and mixes the soap and water into a lather with his boar’s hair brush. He removes the towel and brushes a thick layer of soap onto Ira’s cheeks, neck, and under his nose. Before he starts to shave, he holds out his leather strop at a forty-five degree angle from its hook on his chair and slides the hard steel razor blade up and back to smooth its cutting edge.

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He scrapes away Ira’s facial hair by moving the blade down from the side, around his chin, down his neck, and back down the other side while holding the skin taut with the fingers of his free hand.

He shaves off Ira’s mustache last.

Jake moves around Ira’s face several times, while feeling the skin for any last remnants of beard. When satisfied that all the hairs are gone, he trims Ira’s nose and ear hairs with his shears, pours a little Lilac Vegetal in his hands and rubs it onto Ira’s cheeks and chin, and covers Ira’s face with another towel. This time it’s cold. He also rubs a thin layer of Vaseline Petroleum Jelly all over Ira’s cheeks, neck, chin, and upper lip area.

This jelly will protect your baby smooth skin from its first shock of light and sun, he says as he raises the chair back to a sitting position so Ira can see himself in the mirror again.

You like it, Mister?

Bringing his shaking hands to his face, Ira probes his cold slick skin, pulls on his chin, and taps his upper lip where his mustache used to be. It’s as if all that hair never existed in the first place. His hair hid everything his face, his neck, his shoulders, his chest. Now he’s all exposed, and he thinks he looks smaller and more compact and much younger than his twenty-three years. It doesn’t look bad, but his unblemished pale face will take some getting used to.

Then he slides out of the chair and walks over to the mirror to look close up. His dark brown eyes open as wide as they’ll go. He turns his face from side to side. It’s smooth all right and rounder than he thought. His chin looks strong and has a dimple that he doesn’t remember seeing before. He’s seen the goys and modernized Jews in Poland and walking around Maxwell Street with short hair and clean-shaved faces. Now he’s one of them.

The barber hands him a small mirror and he turns to see the back of his head and neck. He sees practically no hair at all. He smiles even wider and puffs out his chest, raising up to his full five feet six-inch stature. He struts over to his coat and hat.

Yes, I like it, Jake, thanks. I like it very much, indeed. Now I really am an American, he says. How much?

For you, Mister Schuman, only two bits instead of three since it’s your first visit.

Ira puts a few silver coins in the man’s hand and marches out the door, still smiling. His next stop is the used clothing stall to sell his black hat and coat and buy a heavy tweed Norfolk jacket and trousers and a bowler hat like the other American guys wear around here.

Comments

  1. Oh, Madeline, I really like the Prologue; it pulled me in right away. I can’t imagine your novel being without it – my gut opinion. Wonderfully poignant!

  2. Madeline, I agree with Dody. Your prologue is wonderfully written and has a hook that grabs the reader by the collar, much like Jake grabbed a collar and put it around Jake’s neck. Must stay!

  3. Dear Madeline, You have succeeded in hooking me into the story with your scenic details, believable dialogue and good pacing. I know there’s a challenge and some sort of dilemma and I feel I must keep reading to see what’s next. Great job. I’m going to play the devil’s advocate and ask why this couldn’t be the first chapter? For whatever it’s worth, I once heard a publisher at a conference say that publishers” hate prologues”. We all know there are rules and we don’t always have to follow them. You have a powerful beginning no matter what you end up calling it. Best wishes as you move forward!

    • Thanks for your always very helpful thoughts, Kathy. That’s why I posed the question. I’ve also heard publishers hate prologues. My main dilemma in making this the first chapter is that the first chapter as it is now, takes place two years later. You’ve given me a lot of food for thought. Love, Madeline

    • Kathy,

      I also heard a small publisher say, “no prologue,” go straight to Chapter One. I’m not sure why we always listen to the so-called, “rules.” Who makes them anyway??? Well done Madeline.

      • Madeline Sharples says:

        Thanks Sonia, I agree. Rules are meant to be broken. I’m reading Updike now and for him there were no rules.

  4. Like your prologue. It pulled me in and made me feel invested in Ira’s shaving of his facial hair. Want to know the reason for this decision. I wonder how relevant this is to rest of book. Also this sounds more like a first chapter. Recently an editor rejected my prologue as giving away an important part of the story.and perhaps this the case here.

  5. Madeline, I just left a lengthy message on FB with a link to an article that I think might help a lot. If this prologue is a symbolic contribution to the story, I think it could be appropriate as that. What I get from it is that he’s ‘sacrificing his born identity for an American identity,’ so my expectation is that it’s obviously an immigration story. If you look at the ‘past protagonist’ prologue in that article, you’d see that it probably fits there. The thing is, how will it fit with the rest of the story. Does he become a sacrificial lamb for a higher cause? What will be the story twist that makes the reader go back and read the prologue again? Or the ongoing tension that makes the reader go back to the prologue every now and again in the hope to find a clue? I do wonder about the lack of inner conflict at doing what he’s doing, yet at one point he brings ‘his shaking hands’ to his face. I hope that helps. Good luck!

    • Madeline Sharples says:

      Thanks Belinda, Thanks so much for this and the article. You have been so helpful. Hopefully I can return the favor sometime. Wishing you all best for 2015.

  6. sheila massoni ph.d. says:

    loved it as I was reading it I felt like I was in the chair being shaved

    • Madeline Sharples says:

      Thanks so much, Sheila. I actually got my husband to get a shave at a barber shop so I could see what they actually do. It was a fun adventure and very helpful for writing this piece.

  7. My book as you know because you edited it was very unique, a poetic essay on earth change. I mixed poetry with prose with some artistic saying I had written. So I felt the need for an introduction and a conclusion in the book. I needed a hook as they say in the form of an introduction because of the style of writing I chose. That should be the criteria for prologue or not….. a blurb on the back cover of the book may be sufficient to induce interest. Something I neglected.

  8. Madeline, I was hooked as it felt suspenseful, not knowing if he would go through with it. Without knowing how this fits into the book, but as it stands, it doesn’t read like a prologue to me, but as part of a larger story, if that makes sense.

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