Editors and agents talk a lot about “voice,” that seemingly elusive quality that every good book possesses. As soon as I started reading Between Us Baxters by Bethany Hegedus, I was immediately struck with one thought: “Wow, what a voice!”
Between Us Baxters is a middle-grade novel set in the fall of 1959, a time of racial tension in Holcolm County, Georgia. The story is told by 12-year-old Polly, who’s white, and looks at her relationships with her poor parents, her overbearing grandmother, and her best friend, 14-year-old Timbre Ann, who’s African-American. When thriving colored businesses start getting burned to the ground, Polly worries about losing her friendship with Timbre Ann.
Heavy subject matter indeed, as well as important and poignant.
Bethany begins the novel with writing that packs a punch. Reading it, you immediately get a sense of Polly, her character and her circumstances. For me, whose accent is far away from Southern, I even found my thoughts twinged with a twange.
Here’s the first page from Between Us Baxters:
Like Moses, Meemaw had ten commandments. On Sundays, I was bound as if by the Bible to a long list of rules. Before dinner, be seen and not heard. Once at the table, lay my napkin in my lap. Keep my elbows off the table, ankles crossed. Bow my head while Uncle Jimmy presides over the prayer. Pass the rolls to my right. Don’t talk with my mouth full. Use the soupspoon only for soup. Wipe my mouth with a napkin, not the back of my hand. And never leave the table before being excused.
Why, if Moses had a number eleven, Lord help me Jesus, Meemaw could have come up with another one. But Holcolm County, Georgia, beat her to it. Here we were all supposed to live by the “no befriending Negroes” rule.
Mama and I preferred to break a few commandments every now and again. And today we weren’t giving credence to the one unwritten law the entire South, not just Georgia, subscribed to. This morning, we were breaking bread with the Biggses.
Can’t you just see this character? Her voice is so strong. Her colloquialisms (“Lord help me Jesus”), her attitude (“Meemaw could have come up with another one”) and her principles (“we weren’t giving credence to the one unwritten law”).
We can also imagine Polly sitting at that Sunday table, trying her best to follow all of Meemaw’s rules — and hating every minute of it.
The first page of a novel can mean the difference between a sale and the book getting ignored. By studying Between Us Baxters, we can see a good example of a first page that works.
Have you read any brilliant beginnings lately? What are you favorites?