Race in America, and The Dry Grass of August

Today’s blog post highlights the first paragraph of The Dry Grass of August, Anna Jean Mayhew’s debut novel. That paragraph is a great hook, for it draws you in and conveys that there’s bound to be a good story in the coming pages. Here it is:

“In August of 1954, we took our first trip without Daddy, and Stell got to use the driver’s license she’d had such a fit about. It was just a little card saying she was Estelle Annette Watts, that she was white, with hazel eyes and brown hair. But her having a license made that trip different from any others, because if she hadn’t had it, we never would have been stuck in Sally’s Motel Park in Claxton, Georgia, where we went to buy fruitcakes and had a wreck instead. And Mary would still be with us.” ~ Anna Jean Mayhew in The Dry Grass of August

DryGrass
The Dry Grass of August, by Anna Jean Mayhew

The Dry Grass of August is a novel that takes you to the American South in the days of  lawfully-mandated racial segregation. It is written from the point-of-view of a 13-year-old white girl from Charlotte, North Carolina. It sheds light on how it was in the 1950s for a black maid, Mary Luther, traveling from North Carolina to Florida with her white employer, Mrs. Watts, and the four Watts children. Mary couldn’t eat in restaurants, couldn’t sleep in motels, and couldn’t use public bathrooms because they were the legal domain of white people.

Mary Luther is in constant but often subtle danger. She was, no doubt, apprehensive and in danger even when the members of the white family she was riding with were unaware. That unawareness is today referred to as “white privilege.” When one lives his entire life as a member of the predominant and ruling race, he enjoys privileges and advantages of which he isn’t even conscious.

The Watts children witness things along the way to Florida that open their eyes to how differently whites and blacks are treated in the United States. They cannot return home to Charlotte unchanged.

In light of the August 12, 2017 violence

I chose the opening paragraph of The Dry Grass of August as my blog topic for today many weeks ago. When I selected it and put it on my blog schedule, I had no idea I would be writing it in the aftermath of the tragedy in Virginia of last weekend. I did not anticipate writing a 1,000-word blog post around that paragraph.

Although published in 2011, The Dry Grass of August speaks to us today as, in light of the murder of Heather Heyer and other violence in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12, 2017, Americans are having a conversation like never before about race relations. That conversation is long overdue and painful. It will not and cannot be a short conversation.

For all the progress that has been made between the races in my 64 years, it is abhorrent and repulsive to me that in 2017 there are Ku Klux Klan members, white supremacists, and Neo-Nazis not only living among us but being emboldened by the words, actions, and inactions of President Donald J. Trump. It is Mr. Trump’s lack of moral leadership that has added fuel to the fire and given bigots a green light to publicly spew their hate.

I had hoped to keep politics out of my blog, but I cannot remain silent. This is bigger than politics. This is morals and humanity and freedom. Freedom to live without fear. My blog is not a huge platform, but it does give me an avenue through which to speak. My blog has 1,300 followers from all over the world. I don’t want my blog followers in other countries to think Americans are vicious and at each other’s throats. That is not who we are.

Whereas the people who doggedly hung onto the myth that white people were a superior race used to cowardly hide their faces and identities under white hoods and robes, they now demonstrate and march with torches in regular street clothes. When they marched in Charlottesville last weekend, some of them were outfitted with helmets and shields, making it difficult for the anti-Nazi protesters to tell the difference between police officers and the white supremacists.

There is no room in the United States of America for Neo-Nazis and other hate mongers. The good citizens of this country cannot allow the current occupant of the White House to lead us down this destructive road by his lame condemnation of evil and his attempt to equate the people carrying Nazi flags with the people who were there to protest their hateful agenda.

Three of the founding pillars of the United States are freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom to assemble. I’m glad I live in a country where people can voice their opinions; however, no American has the constitutional right to threaten, terrorize, or murder other people simply because of the color of their skin or the way they choose to worship God.

The United States is in a watershed moment. We will come out a better people on the other side of the current self-examination and soul searching because we are a good and decent people. We are not who Mr. Trump would try to make you think we are. We are so much better than that.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. If you’re a writer, I hope you have a good book to read while you write your next good book.

Janet

 

Diana Gabaldon’s First Line in Outlander

“It wasn’t a very likely place for disappearances, at least at first glance.” – first line in Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon.

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Outlander: A Novel, by Diana Gabaldon

What place?

What is this place? Where is it? What kinds of disappearances? Are the disappearances only in the past or is there one in the offing? If so, who is going to disappear, and where are they going? At second glance, does it become obvious that it’s a “likely place for disappearances?”

The hook

That one 12-word sentence brings up many questions. In so doing, it accomplishes what a novel’s first sentence is supposed to do. The reader is compelled to keep reading in order to find the answers to those questions. It “hooks” the reader.

The tip of the iceberg

When Diana Gabaldon penned the opening sentence in Outlander, I wonder if she had a clue what an adventure she was embarking on as a writer or what an adventure she was inviting readers to take. It turned out to be the first step we took on a journey that continues today.

If you are a fan of historical fiction, time travel, or Scotland and have not read Outlander or the other books in Ms. Gabaldon’s Outlander Series, it’s not too late to start. I got sidetracked after reading Fiery Cross, so I have some catching up to do!

This is a series that you definitely should read in order because one book builds on the previous one. I have enjoyed the “Outlander” series on TV. It is excellently done; however, it doesn’t take the place of reading the novels.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. (I’m reading A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman.) If you’re a writer, I hope you have productive writing time.

Janet

First Line from a Novel by Flannery O’Connor

The first line of Flannery O’Connor’s 1960 novel, The Violent Bear It Away, has to be my favorite first line.  “Francis Marion Tarwater’s uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish digging his grave and a Negro named Buford Munson, who had come to get a jug filled, had to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table when it was still sitting and bury it in a decent and Christian way, with the sign of its Saviour at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up,” says it all.

The Violent Bear It Away book cover
Book cover of The Violent Bear It Away, by Flannery O’Connor

What do we learn from the sentence?

From that one sentence, we know that Francis Marion Tarwater was, no doubt, named for that famous South Carolina “Swamp Fox” of the American Revolution, Francis Marion. We know that Tarwater is white, because Buford Munson is described as being a Negro. We can guess that there is an illegal still involved, although Munson could have come to fill his jug with water. The sentence tells us that Tarwater’s uncle died at the breakfast table and half a day later Tarwater was too drunk to bury him. It also tells us that Tarwater’s uncle was a Christian, and that Munson puts a cross at the head of the grave when he finishes burying Tarwater’s uncle.

The opening sentence also paints a picture of the grave of Tarwater’s uncle piled high with fresh dirt in order to prevent dogs from smelling and digging up the body. From this, we can assume there was no casket, no vault, no fence around the gravesite, and no leash laws in the area.

Tarwater is described as a boy in the opening sentence. This tells us that he was under the age of 21 (the age of majority when the novel was written) and more than likely younger than that. (We learn later that he is 14 years old.) For him to be too drunk to finish digging the grave tells us that Tarwater is either celebrating his uncle’s death or distraught with grief. Either way, it is not a desirable situation.

The young Tarwater apparently felt total responsibility to bury his uncle which insinuates that there are no relatives or good friends close by. Or, perhaps Tarwater murdered his unsuspecting uncle by putting poisonous material in his food, then got scared or felt guilty, which caused him to get drunk and  attempt to hide the evidence by burying him.

Just when we think that opening sentence with all its nooks and crannies has said it all, we realize that it has led us to an incredible number of questions. Although the novel’s opening sentence is outrageously long at 88 words and complicated with only two commas allowing us to take a breath, it accomplishes what every fiction writing textbook says a novel’s opening sentence should do:  It hooks us. It draws us in. It compels us to keep reading in order to find out what is going on and to find the answers to the many questions it raises.  What more could you ask of an opening line?

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. If you’re a writer, I hope you have quality writing time.

The First Line from a Novel by Tom Rob Smith

“Since Maria had decided to die her cat would have to fend for itself.” — first sentence in Chapter One of Child 44, by Tom Rob Smith

Tom Rob Smith’s novel, Child 44, is about a serial child killer in Stalinist Russia. It is a compelling read, and I plan to read books two and three in this trilogy – The Secret Speech and Agent 6.

I knew the general premise of the story when I picked up Child 44, but the opening line of the first chapter intrigued me. The reader isn’t sure why Maria “had decided to die.” That’s what a good novel’s “hook” does. It pulls the reader in enough to make him or her read the next sentence, and the next sentence, until the reader is “hooked” and can’t stop reading.

My first thought when I read the first sentence of chapter one in Child 44 was that Maria was contemplating suicide. That was not the case. Maria (and lots of other people in her village) were starving to death. She knew the end was near.

Until my next blog post, I hope you have a good book to read. If you’re a writer, I hope you have productive writing time.

Janet

First line from a novel by Jenny Milchman

“The children had never been this far from home before.” ~ from Ruin Falls, by Jenny Milchman

What thoughts does this first line from Jenny Milchman’s Ruin Falls bring to your mind?

Ruin Falls, by Jenny Milchman
Ruin Falls, by Jenny Milchman

Cue from title

Indeed, the title gives a cue about the tone of the book. I don’t want to give too much away and spoil it for you, but I can say that the book involves the disappearance of two children and their mother’s desperate search for them. It is a book of suspense. Sometimes a reader can tell by the title what kind of book a novel is, but we all know that isn’t always true. “You can’t judge a book by its cover” comes to mind.

Speaking of judging a book . . .

Ruin Falls was an Indie Next Pick and a “Top Ten of 2014” selection by Suspense Magazine.

Author, Jenny Milchman

I decided to read Ruin Falls last year primarily because it fulfilled one of the 19 categories in the 2016 Mint Hill Library Reading Challenge — Read a book whose author has your initials. It was either that or read a book by James A. Michener. Time was not on my side, so I opted for Jenny Milchman. I’d read another of her books — Cover of Snow — several ears ago and liked it, so Ruin Falls was not a random choice. I will read other books she writes. I have not read her novel published in 2015 titled As Night Falls. It seems to be another suspense novel.

In addition to her writing talent, I admire Jenny Milchman for founding “Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day” in 2010.

Until my next blog post . . .

I hope you have a good book to read. If you’re a writer, I hope you have productive writing time.

Janet

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First Line of a Novel

Once a month I blog about the first line in a novel. I started doing that when I thought the first line was the “hook.” I’ve learned that the hook can entail the first paragraph or even the first page of a novel, but I plan to continue to blog about the first line only.

The Risen

The Risen, by Ron Rash

“From the beginning, Ligeia’s ability to appear and disappear seemed magical.” – From The Risen, by Ron Rash.

When I read that sentence for the first time, I had no way of knowing who Ligeia was or that it foreshadowed many appearances and disappearances throughout the book. The line was very clever on Mr. Rash’s part.

The Risen is a coming of age story of two brothers who grew up in Sylva, North Carolina in the Appalachian Mountains and the secret one kept from the other for decades. I don’t want to spoil the story for you, so I’ll just leave it at that. If you haven’t given this North Carolina author a try, please do so.

If you like my blog, I hope you will tell your friends and follow me on social media in addition to following Janet’s Writing Blog.

Until my next blog post in a few days, I wish you a good book to read and, if you’re a writer, I hope you have productive writing time.

Janet

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First Line of a Novel – The One Man

“The barking of the dogs was closing in on them, not far behind now.” That’s the first line of chapter one of the historical thriller, The One Man, by Andrew Gross.

Setting

I’m reading The One Man now and I can hardly put it down. Set in Poland in 1944, one knows that being chased by dogs probably has something to do with the Nazis.

Prologue

The book’s prologue is in the present time but ends with a war time memory of a patient in a Veterans Administration hospital. Two men “running for their lives. . .” That prepares the reader for the first line in chapter one.

Word choice

In addition to being a great “hook” for the book, the first line in chapter one is interesting for word choice. If I had written it, I probably would have said something like, “The barking dogs were closing in on them” or even a mundane line like, “They were being chased by dogs.” (That is, if I’d known enough about the craft of writing to drop the reader into the middle of the action.)

I prefer the way Andrew Gross constructed the sentence over the way I might have written it. Mr. Gross has the sound of barking dogs closing in on the runners instead of the dogs closing in.

Am I “splitting hairs” here? Perhaps. But when I read the opening line as a person who is trying to learn the craft of writing, I find that the sounds of the approaching barking dogs is a richer way to pull me into the story. The runners haven’t necessarily seen the dogs but they are, no doubt, terrified by the sounds of the barking dogs. I found it to be an interesting way to describe what was scaring the runners. And doesn’t that sentence make you want to keep reading?

Any thoughts? Please share on social media by using the icons below.

Until my next blog post in a few days, I hope you have a good book to read and, if you’re a writer, I hope you have quality writing time.

Janet