Fern and that Axe

In this recent article from The Atlantic, writers talk about their favorite first lines.  If you haven’t seen it, go take a look.  Reading this piece got me thinking about first lines, and how we remember them, and what they mean to us later on when we recall them.  Who can forget, for instance, the first line of CHARLOTTE’S WEB?

“Where’s Papa going with that axe?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

So today I’m thinking about first lines.  Call them some of the best firsts.  Call them personal favorite firsts.  Whatever they are, these made my list today.  Do you recognize any or all of them?  (answers below)

1.  124 was spiteful.

2.  In those days, cheap apartments were almost impossible to find in Manhattan, so I had to move to Brooklyn.

3.  Once upon a time, sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs.

4.  1801 — I have just returned from a visit to my landlord — the solitary neighbor that I shall be troubled with.

5.  Buck did not read the newspapers, or he would have known that trouble was brewing, not alone for himself, but for every tidewater dog, strong of muscle and with warm, long hair, from Puget Sound to San Diego.

6.  All of this happened while I was walking around starving in Christiania — that strange city no one escapes from until it has left its mark on him …

7.  Ree Dolly stood at break of day on her cold front steps and smelled coming flurries and saw meat.

8.  The small boys came early to the hanging.

9.  When my mother was angry with me, which was often, she said, “The Devil led us to the wrong crib.”

10.  It wasn’t a very likely place for disappearances, at least at first glance.




1.  Toni Morrison, BELOVED

2.  William Styron, SOPHIE’S CHOICE

3.  Laura Ingalls Wilder, LITTLE HOUSE IN THE BIG WOODS


5.  Jack London, THE CALL OF THE WILD

6.  Knut Hamsun, HUNGER

7.  Daniel Woodrell, WINTER’S BONE



10.  Diana Gabaldon, OUTLANDER


What are some of your favorite first lines?


24 thoughts on “Fern and that Axe

  1. girl in the hat

    124 was spiteful. Oh, oh, that just cuts right to the bone! TM gives me the shivers.

    If I had a bookshelf to go to, I’d answer your question properly.

    What’s the first line of your wip, Teri?

    1. Teri Post author

      Oh Anna, when I say “124 was spiteful” in my head, I throw all kinds of loud power into “spiteful.” I hope you can click on the article and read through them — there are some incredible choices.

      A friend of mine who published his memoir some years ago had a first line that I loved: “For the first seven years of my life, my nickname was Jolly — Jolly because my smile, pudgy cheeks, and a potbelly intimated that a giggle was just around the corner.” – from WAKING, by Matthew Sanford

      Share mine? I’m waaaaaaay too superstitious for that.

    1. Teri Post author

      I still remember exactly where I was sitting in our house in Minnesota when I started that book and read that line. My niece came to town the next week, and I sent the book with her for the long car ride back to Missouri. And the next book I read was Sebold’s memoir, LUCKY, which also just about killed me.

  2. jess3872

    “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”–

    1. Teri Post author

      So when I google “jane austen famous first lines” I find this on The Guardian’s website: http://www.theguardian.com/culture/gallery/2012/apr/29/ten-best-first-lines-fiction#/?picture=389274050&index=4

      And this incredible first line I’ve never seen before. Thanks Jess3872. 🙂

      PG Wodehouse
      The Luck of the Bodkins (1935)
      “Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French.”

      1. Teri Post author

        If I say I don’t *love* it, will you still let me into the playground? I like it okay, it’s good, it’s universal, everybody knows it, but if I’m telling the truth I’ve never fallen in love with it. I assume a flaw in my own character, of course.

  3. jpon

    I put together a similar first lines quiz for my local writer friends a year or so ago, and 124 was spiteful headed off that list too.

    For me, though, the best was this: “I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.
    Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex

    1. Teri Post author

      My daughter read, and loved, MIDDLESEX. I’ve still not read it. But that first line, really the first words “I was born twice,” are something.

      Call me Ishmael. I was born twice. 124 was spiteful. I’m feeling a rhythm here….

      1. jpon

        The simplicity of those sentences, coupled with their mysterious meanings… maybe that’s why the first sentence of my novel, at 49 words, failed to thrill the agents.

    2. Lyra

      I was just thinking how horrible I was that I can’t remember any first lines and I read the first four words and knew this one, so thank you JPON. Maybe it has to do with my love for the book, and I loved this one.
      Although I loved Beloved as well, but wouldn’t have picked that one.

      1. jpon

        Thank you, Lyra. I read that book years ago, but I still remember how that first sentence (and the first paragraph) grabbed me, as if to say, this is not your run of the mill novel!

    1. Teri Post author

      I don’t love my first line. But I do, kinda sorta, love the second one. It says what the story is really about, and that makes me happy.

  4. Tara DaPra

    I know this is more than the first line–it’s the whole first paragraph–but one line flows so urgently into the next, I feel the need to share it:

    “We went there for everything we needed. We went there when thirsty, of course, and when hungry, and when dead tired. We went there when happy, to celebrate, and when sad, to sulk. We went there after weddings and funerals, for something to settle our nerves, and always for a shot of courage just before. We went there when we didn’t know what we needed, hoping someone might tell us. We went here when looking for love, or sex, or trouble, or for someone who had gone missing, because sooner or later everyone turned up there. Most of all we went there when we needed to be found.”

    This is from one of my favorite memoirs, “The Tender Bar,” by JR Moehringer. For me, the rhythm has also invoked Dickens: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….”

    1. Teri

      The poetic capturing of his entire book, right there in the first paragraph. No wonder Andre Agassi called him up, after reading The Tender Bar, and asked him to write his memoir.

  5. LauraMaylene

    Ah, Fern. I feel like she’s an old friend I’ve forgotten about for too long. I so loved that book and think it’s time for a re-read. There’s something special about re-reading your childhood favorites.

  6. sherrystanfastanley

    “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.”
    –A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving

    It only got better from there. One of my favorite books ever.

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