5 Compelling Opening Lines in Historical Fiction

Hansen.jpgAt the risk of stubbing my toe against a cliché, let me tell you to never judge a book by its cover. I wish I could brag that I follow that edict to the word, but I know that there are many books in my library that are there for their covers alone. The cover of my copy of Homer’s Iliad is a black-and-white photograph of the D-Day landing. Taken from inside the landing craft, it shows soldiers wading towards the beach. This is one of the most published books in the world, and I could’ve owned a hundred different cover images. But I chose this one. Or take Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle. It’s cover shows a naked woman dancing in a meadow. I bought it in the middle 1990s and have yet to read it. (One day, I keep telling myself. One day!) The moment I saw the cover was the very moment I decided to buy the book. I was standing in the fiction section of Auntie’s Bookstore in Spokane, and I remember thinking: Any novel daring enough to have a naked woman on its cover is a book I want in my library!

But that is not how I usually choose novels to own. These days, I usually do my book buying online, either through Amazon or Barnes and Noble, to download on my Kindle or Nook. I enjoy the convenience, but I miss shopping in bookstores. Buying the next novel to read was a mission. When I lived in Denver, I shopped at the Tattered Cover Bookstore, and when I lived in Spokane, I shopped at Auntie’s. Olympia has a couple wonderful bookstores–Browser’s Books and Orca Books–plus I occasionally go to Seattle to shop at Elliott Bay Book Company or to Portland to visit Powell’s City of Books. These visits are for nostalgia. They take me back to the days when I would willow away at least one day a month at a bookstore.

I had a process, a modus operandi. Once in the bookstore, I headed to the fiction section. Starting at the As, I wormed my way through the racks until I reached the Zs. During this journey, I would pick up a dozen or so novels, look at the cover, read the synopsis, and read the author’s blurb. At any of these stages, I might rule a book out, but if I hadn’t ruled the book out, I opened to the first page and read the first paragraph or two. Or more. But that time, I knew whether I want to read this novel or not. The cover might catch my attention, but it’s the words on first page that convince me to buy. And it are these words I want to share with you today.

I have selected five novels that I have survived that test of the opening paragraphs, and I want to share them with you. I’m not sure that I have a goal in writing this blog, but I do have a desire or wish. I hope in reading my blog you will decide to spend more time reading fiction in your own life. For those visitors who don’t read, I hope to kindle a desire to read. For those visitors who used to read but have found their busy lives leave too little time for it these days, I hope to motivate you to make the time to read. I’m not saying these books are where you should start. But they are books whose opening lines caught my attention, and they might catch yours too. The writers are modern writers, writers who have lived at the same time as me. (A couple are now dead.) In my first selection of books, I realized that 4 of the 5 were historical fiction. Deciding to keep all the selections within one genre, I replaced the fifth book with a historical novel. All the novels are written by American novelists. I’m ordering them alphabetically by author’s last name.

Countrymen of Bones
Robert Olen Butler

Darrell Reeves looked to the south when he heard the bombs falling, south down the trackless Jornada del Muerto, the journey of the dead, where the mesquite sucked deep in the desert soil. The mesquite was stunted and hard, like the souls of the men making this war, Darrell thought, and no shadow touched another. Far off, a sand devil rose up; silent from this distance, the swirl of wind climbed, taking on its body of dust and sand, broadening and flexing and then sliding away.

In 1993, Robert Olen Butler won the Pulitzer Prize for his A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. Though it wasn’t his first book, it brought him a nationwide attention that is well-deserved. I haven’t read A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, but I understand it is a collection of short stories about Vietnamese immigrants. Butler served in Vietnam as an intelligence officer and translator. I had read two of his books: They Whisper and Countrymen of BonesThey Whisper is an erotic novel, told in the first person, about a man’s sexual history. Most of his books, however, deal with historical themes.

One of the most important moments in American history, with worldwide implications we’re still struggling to understand and control, was the detonation of the first atomic bomb. Countrymen of Bones looks at this event through the eyes of Darrell Reeves, an archaeologists unearthing an Indian burial site in the Los Alamos desert. This preserver of the past finds himself in conflict with the harbinger of the future, a physicist named Lloyd Coulter, working to build most powerful bomb known to man. They rival each other not only in the inherent conflict of research but also for the love of a woman, Anna Brown. Reeves struggles to unearth the past and protect it against the blast that will annihilate it. History tells us how this novel ends, but reading a novel isn’t always about the surprised ending. Often it is about the journal that takes us to that ending. Darrell’s journey is gripping and tense, heartbreaking and honest.


Ron Hansen

When Marshal Frank Dalton was murdered by whiskey runners in 1887, the federal government shipped him to Coffeyville, Kansas, in a mahogany box filled with ice. His face and hair were waxed by undertaker Lape and the body was hauled to Elmwood Cemetery in a quality black carriage with windows that did not warp what was looked at.

When my brothers Bob and Grat Dalton were shot dead in 1892, the bodies were handcuffed and stood in their stocking feet so photographs could be taken and the outlaws lay all night on a Coffeyville jail-house floor with blowflies crawling over their faces. Women came by with pinking shears to snip away bits of their hair and clothes, and the cartridges that were left in their belts sold for a dollar apiece.

Ron Hansen cut his teeth as a writer by writing literary westerns. Desperadoes, published in 1979, was his first novel. He followed it up in 1983 with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which was made into a movie in 2007 starring Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck. I had read and enjoyed both books. I also read Hitler’s Niece (1999), set prior to Hitler’s rise to power and examining the strange relationship he had with his niece, Geli Raubal. I found all three novels compelling reads and recommend them. He had written several novels that I haven’t read. The two most famous, or at least the two I’ve heard mentioned the most, are Mariette in Ecstasy and Atticus.

I like the opening lines of Desperadoes, because they compare and contrast the death of the lawman, Frank Dalton, to the deaths of his outlaw brothers, Bob and Grat. Emmett Dalton, the soul survivor the the gang, narrates this novel about the exploits of the Dalton Gang. America is fascinated with its outlaws, especially those gangs of the Old West–James-Younger Gang, Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, and the the Dalton Gang. Part rebel, part criminal–the outlaw is an America icon, as rooted in our national mythology as the Lewis and Clark expedition and as connected to our national identity as Washington’s victory at Yorktown and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

In Desperadoes, Hansen explore the dichotomy of the outlaw existence, an existence that makes him neither hero nor villain, but just a man struggling to survive a difficult life. The novel begins with the death of Marshal Dalton and ends with the Coffeyville shootout that ended the Dalton Gang career. It is a compelling story, filled–as you would expect–with violence and gunfights, but also with compelling characters and strong pathos.


A Prayer for Owen Meany
John Irving

I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice–not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God: I am a Christian because of Owen Meany. I make no claims to have a life in Christ, or with Christ–and certainly not for Christ, which I’ve heard some zealots claim. I’m not very sophisticated in my knowledge of the Old Testament, and I’ve not read the New Testament since my Sunday school days, except for those passages that I hear read aloud to me when I go to church. I’m somewhat more familiar with the passages from the Bible that appear in The Book of Common Prayer; I read my prayer book often, and my Bible only on holy days–the prayer book is so much more orderly.

I shy away from such claims like he’s my favorite writer, but more than any other writer on this list, I read everything I could get my hands on by John Irving and I anticipated his next novel the way a ten-year-old awaits Christmas. In the 80s and 90s, I never visited a bookstore without checking to see if Irving had published a new book. But I have to confess that I haven’t read anything by him in over a decade. (As I write this, I realize it’s time to revisit Irving.) He wrote The World According to Garp, the source of the Robin Williams’ movie, and he wrote The Hotel New Hampshire, which was also made into a movie. Though neither were his first book, the one-two punch of their success elevated him to nationwide fame. He followed up with Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany. He writes long novels, rich in detail, peopled with unique characters, and powered by complex themes and plots.

The Vietnam War serves as the backdrop of this novel. It followed the life of John Wheelwright, the narrator, and Owen Meany, as they grow up in the shadow of that war. Typical middle-class teenagers, they understand that, due to their age and the national draft, they would one day find themselves as soldiers in that war. But Owen suffered a vision, a prophecy, and even as a child, he dedicated himself to turning that vision into self-fulfilling prophecy. Faith, as the opening paragraph tells us, is a theme in this novel. An atheist, I usually shy away from novels with strong spiritual messages, but A Prayer for Owen Meany was too compelling to put down. I was hooked with the opening clause: I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice….


The Killer Angels
Michael Shaara

He rode into the dark of the woods and dismounted. He crawled upward on his belly over cool rocks out into the sunlight, and suddenly he was in the open and he could see for miles, and there was the whole vast army below him, filling the valley like a smoking river. It came out of the blue rainstorm in the east and overflowed the narrow valley road, coiling along a stream, narrowing and choking a white bridge, fading out into the yellowish dust of June but still visible on the farther road beyond the blue hills, spiked with flags and guidons like a great chopped bristly snake, the snake ending headless in the blue wall of summer rain.

Michael Shaara died too young. I’m not saying that there is an age that isn’t “too young” to die, but in my mind, Michael Shaara died when he was just getting started. Though he had been writing short stories since the 1950s, and though he had written a novel about the Korean War in 1968, he is most known for The Killer Angels, published in 1974. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1975, and it was adopted into the film Gettysburg in 1993. But Shaara never saw the movie. He died in 1988.

The Killer Angels is a novel about the Battle of Gettysburg, who many historians feel was the turning point of the Civil War. With the intentions of marching on Washington D.C., Robert E Lee led the Confederate Army in an invasion of the north, but the Union Army, the Army of the Republic, intercepted the Confederate at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. For three days, July 1 to 3, 1863, the armies fought. Lee ordered several charges in an effort to break through the Union lines and destroy his foe, including the infamous Pickett’s Charge, but the Union, led by George G. Meade, held their ground and forced Lee’s retreat. This battle inspired Abe Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” one of the principle documents of American history.

Shaara wrote about this battle, from the discovery of the Confederate invasion by a spy to Lee’s nocturnal retreat. He chose to tell the story in third person narration, through the eyes of several of the men who led the armies and their units, including Lee and Chamberlain, Longstreet and Buford. The action is gripping, the narration is tense and beautiful, and the characters, both North and South, are compelling and believable. There are no villains in this novel, only heroes. I’m tempted to label The Killer Angels as the definitive novel about Gettysburg, if not the Civil War, but I also caution myself from such hyperbolic statements. But I will say this: Once I read The Killer Angels, I never felt the need to read another novel about Gettysburg. Shaara brought the battle to life in a way that history books never could. And that, of course, is one reason to read historical fiction.


Mother Night
Kurt Vonnegut

My name is Howard W. Campbell, Jr.

I am an American by brith, a Nazi by reputation, and a nationless person by inclination.

The year in which I write this book in 1961.

I address this book of mine to Mr. Tuvia Friedmann, Director of the Haifa Institute for the Documentation of War Criminals, and to whomever else this may concern.

Why should this book interest Mr. Friedmann?

Because it is written by a man suspected of being a war criminal.

Arguably, Kurt Vonnegut is the most famous writer on this list. He is clearly the one with the longest and most distinguished literary career. Born in 1922, he found himself military age at the onslaught of the Second World War. The Germans captured him during the Battle of the Bulge and held him prisoner at Dresden. As a POW, he witnessed the fire bombing of that city in February 1945. From this experience, he wrote his sixth and most famous novel, Slaughterhouse Five (1969). His style is satirical; his plots are farcical; his characters quirky and interesting. But his themes are big. I mean BIG! He explores the role of humans on this Earth. In Cat’s Cradle, he writes about the end of the world, at man’s hand, of course. In The Sirens of Titan, he explores free will and the ways humans forfeit it.

Mother Night is about an America hired by the United States government during World War Two to go to Germany and infiltrate its radio media. In this cover, he becomes a Nazi propagandist. Now, back home in America after the war, he finds himself hated and accused. Having performed his uncover work well, he’s accused of being a Nazi sympathizer and helping to inspire the Holocaust. Campbell himself wonders where his true loyalties lies. Tense and psychological, Mother Night follows Campbell as he struggles with his own identity and ponders his role in history and his responsibility to his country.


Any survey of novels is incomplete. As I read over my choices, I find myself thinking of a dozen novels that should be on this list. Novels like Ursula Hegi’s Stones from the River or James Welch’s Fools Crow. I find myself in the paradoxical position of being both pleased and dissatisfied with my list. My purpose was to give you a taste of effective opening lines in novels and how they inspired me to read the book. You, rather than me, will decide if I fulfilled that purpose. For myself, I fulfilled an unexpected purpose of reminding myself how many great books there are in this world. I hope you enjoyed this list.

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