first line friday

My father brought home a radio. “It’s got a sender and a receiver,” he said. “Now you can talk to people other than yourselves.” He fit the earphones over my head. And the first news I heard was that my friend Pelly Bay had drowned. Pelly had fallen through the ice while riding his unicycle. That was April 1959.

The Northern Lights, Howard Norman, 1987

I’ve been meaning to include The Northern Lights in FLF for ages because it has a cracker of an opening and has been one of my favourite reads of this year. It is the first novel of American writer, Howard Norman, and is about fourteen-year-old Noah Krainik growing up in the frozen wilderness of northern Manitoba and later in Toronto. This Recording calls it “the best book ever to take place in Toronto.” An attractive claim, although I’d best check my Margaret Atwood back catalogue before seconding that one.

Norman said that he wanted to create a melancholic atmosphere in the novel and so wrote the whole thing while listening to “Bach’s Unaccompanied Pieces for Cello” on loop and reading the novella, A Fool’s Life, by Ryunosuke, over and over. I reckon it did the trick:

I had tried to concentrate on the landscape – the wetlands, the spruce – but as we heard the muffled whine of Savoie’s plane, I felt a tightening inside. Hands in my pockets, shoulders hunched, I drew into myself. We saw the plan lower from a cloudbank, tilting, rebalancing, setting down, then leaving a widening rift of water as it circled back on Piwese Lake. About fifty yards from shore, Savoie anchored. He then rowed a pontoon to the rocks. “I am ready when you are,” he said.

I looked at Sam and Hettie. “Okay – goodbye,” I said. Hettie checked the rope securing my suitcase, adjusting it to no useful purpose except to show her affection for me. She turned away, took a few steps, stopped, and looked at the house. Sam, placing an arm around my shoulder but not looking at me, said, “yes, goodbye Noah. You’re doing the right thing. You thought hard, worked your options down to one – your family. And that takes courage.”

“I don’t feel courageous,” I said.

“No matter,” he said. “You’re acting as such.”

Sam pulled me close and said, “Don’t forget. We’re your second home.” He then joined Hettie, and they walked toward the house, not looking back.

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