Fahrenheit 451 pretty much haunts me. No, not the book so much as the first line. Considering the dystopian flavor of the novel and the ludicrous yet intriguing conflict of censorship, page 1 features a pretty sharpened line designed to hook unsuspecting readers: “It was a pleasure to burn.”
Somewhere along the way, in between stimulating English classes at Calvin College (I can’t quite make the switch to the university side of things in my brain) and considerably less compelling classes featuring myself as the instructor of English and literature for hormonal middle schoolers, I fell in love with first lines, so much so that when we’re writing in class, I sometimes beg students to make their opening salvo in a journal something brimming with metaphorical horsepower. “Make me laugh; make me cry,” I sometimes beckon. If the stars align and an adolescent strings together a curtain-rising line that provokes happy tears, he or she gets an “A” for the year, maybe even the century. Oh, what the heck, an “A” for the millennia.
I undoubtedly focus too much on Act 1, when perhaps the rest of the compositional play crumbles under the weight of unrealized expectations, but without some serious punch at the opening bell, it doesn’t matter what happens in round 3. Legendary Los Angeles Times sportswriter Jim Murray explained it this way: “No one’s going to see the circus if you can’t get ’em in the tent.”
And thus, openers with eclectic verve or lexical novelty or even awe-filled truth widen my eyes and quicken my pulse. This week I started reading This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger. When I got to the end of the prologue, these lines made me stop and offer a quick prayer of gratitude for the English language and for those who know how to weave beauty out of it:
There will be courage in this story and cowardice. There will be love and betrayal. And, of course, there will be hope. In the end, isn’t that what every good story is about?This Tender Land – William Kent Krueger
Every story you ever ingest, whether in film or in the pages of a dime-store novel, intersects your life at a given time and thus, whatever road you happen to be traveling at the time, flavors the impression the story makes. For me, like most of Earth’s citizens, the road for the past 8 months has been a perilous path, with enough landmines and detours to thwart joy and threaten to swallow optimism. News reports unfurl despair. Forecasters anticipate plenty of Gloom and Doom still.
And so, to crack the pages of a new book and have the opening lines herald the triumph of hope, that’s enough to make me giddy with anticipation. Krueger speaks truth. Hope is the bedrock of the Christian experience in this world. It’s the fabric that stitches together the fraying fibers of our lives. Hope that tomorrow will be better. Or the next day. Or the next one. Or simply eventually. Hope that love will win. That good will triumph. And that beauty will endure.
Even the unexpected promise of hope in the opening pages of a novel is enough to rekindle the fires of anticipation in me that better days await us.