Today’s post is by regular contributor Peter Selgin, the award-winning author of Your First Page. He offers first-page critiques to show just how much useful critical commentary and helpful feedback can be extracted from a single page—the first page—of a work-in-progress. Learn more about getting a first-page critique.
They came to us with the mean December wind, three cars in all. We lived on a desolate country road where approaching sounds could be heard before things happened. There was the muffled rumble of their exhaust reverberating off mounds of snow, then the moaning of their engines. I rushed to the front living room window, pulled the drapery back, and pressed my nose to the pane. My breath fogged the glass and I could taste dust on my lips. Soon, boxed shadows appeared from around the bend. They turned into our long drive in a systematic order, each bumper connecting to the next. Their tires crunched the frozen ground in a slow, torturous grind.
Daddy told me they were relatives coming to pay their respects. We, my two brothers and I, didn’t need to bathe or put on school clothes. “They’re not that kind of company,” Daddy said. His voice quivered with anger.
It was the day after Christmas, 1956. I was only twelve years old, and I didn’t understand Daddy’s coldness towards our visitors. What I did understand was the fact that my mother had died, in the morning hours of Christmas Eve from what was described to me as “woman cancer.” The nurses at the hospital whispered it behind the shield of their hands, as though it was a dirty secret and by speaking the words out loud they too would be cursed with the same kind of cancer that claimed Mom.
Watching the cars approach, I wondered if that’s what they were coming for, to claim Mom, or what she’d left behind. The joke was on them. She didn’t have anything left, nothing of value. Just some old, worn dresses, a wedding ring Daddy said he got out of a Crackerjack box, and two fancy hairpins she wore to proper occasions: nothing worth bickering over.
The opening sentence of this first page puts us in capable hands: “They came to us with the mean December wind, three cars in all.”
The cunning juxtaposition of a personified wind (picture a cartoon character with furrowed brow, puffy ruddy cheeks, quivering jowls) with those three matter-of-fact cars, is unsettling, as it’s meant to be. It thrusts us into the psyche of the narrator, a child to whose home on Christmas Eve an uninvited visitor arrives. Not Santa, with his brimming sleigh of gifts, but the Grim Reaper who has come for his mother.
Several things account for the effectiveness of this opening. For one, it appeals immediately and thoroughly to the senses. First, we have that “mean” wind. I’ve said elsewhere that adjectives aren’t descriptions, but opinions. True. Yet thanks to that “mean” we don’t need to be told that the wind is cold, or harsh, that it lashes cheeks and draws tears.
Next, we’re treated to the ominous rumblings of those approaching cars, “their exhausts reverberating off mounds of snow, then the moaning of their engines.” Note the choice of words: “muffled rumble,” “moaning”—sounds that connote the mother’s final breaths and moans of agony during her death throes. Drawn by the “moaning” of those engines, the narrator (we’re not told her gender; I’ll assume she’s a girl) rushes into the living room where she “[pulls] the drapery back.” I can feel those heavy drapes parting under the influence of small hands as the girl “[presses her] nose to the pane.” What the character sees through that icy pane is no longer the benign world so familiar to her the day before, but a world transformed by death.
According to the narrator’s father, the cars hold “relatives coming to pay their respects.” And though the narrator may not say so, or even know it, we feel that for her those three cars with their ominous rumblings stand for death itself. Is it a stretch to assume that the breath with which the girl fogs the glass is as fleeting as the oval of fog itself? And that the dust she tastes on her lips is the dust from which we’re all born, and to which death will eventually return us all—and sooner than any of us care to think? I suspect not.
The narrative’s retrospective approach is likewise well handled. The story is set in the now fairly distant past—1956—before more than a few of today’s readers were born. And yet it opens with a sensual immediacy that brings the past into the present and makes it as real to us as our own breaths and sensations. By the time we learn that “It was the day after Christmas, 1956,” we are already there, inhabiting that past as though it were ours.
And that’s crucial, since, whether or not we admit it, ultimately the only stories that matter are those we inhabit personally, not just with our minds, but through our senses. Remember: the fiction writer’s job (or that of any storyteller, whether the stories are imagined or real) isn’t to report experience, but to create it. And experience is processed in the mind by way of the senses.
Here, the author skillfully tucks exposition into narrative: “Watching the cars approach, I wondered …” Though background information is supplied (“It was the day after Christmas, 1956 …”), it never carries us out of the scene. Nor are we ever removed—by incongruous diction, extraneous exposition, or anachronistic awareness—from the psyche of the girl whose nose is pressed to the cold pane as he peers out at those arriving cars. Like a sponge, the vividly rendered moment soaks up all background exposition introduced into it.
This is a strong opening. I would keep reading. What about you?
Your turn: How would you assess this opening? (Be constructive.)