by Troy Howell
Just as you get a sense of who a stranger is the moment he speaks, you get an impression of a book when you read its opening line. You hear the voice for the first time.
Here I’ve selected the opening line from one of my favorite books and favorite authors, Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt. (The movie’s worth watching, too, with a sinister Ben Kingsley and a dream-wearied Sissy Spacek.)
The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning.
You can feel this first line, this lazy-hazy approach to storytelling. You connect to the truth of it, understanding the atmosphere that’s being described. The mood is set, giving us a distinct lyrical voice, one we can cozy into.
The theme is introduced: the incongruity of time standing still and time advancing; or, specifically for Winnie Foster: choosing immortality. Notice the use of the thematic word “live-long”—a brilliant choice. As it is with a Ferris wheel’s halt, so it is with the Tuck family, people who are suspended in time, nearly numb in their agelessness. And so Babbitt sets the motif, that of the wheel of life. Says Angus Tuck, “It’s a wheel, Winnie. Everything’s a wheel, turning and turning …” Except, of course, for the Tucks.
This first line also creates subtle tension, a precariousness that will eventually break. You know the wheel must drop from its stop-breath moment. The pivotal questions are: When will it drop, how quickly, and which way. Or to be more precise to the story: What’s going to happen this first week of August?
The line itself is timeless.