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by Rebecca H. Jamison
Walking toward the red brick building, I held onto Grace, my fifteen-year-old sister. It was probably a mistake to bring her, but leaving her at home with our sister Maren would’ve been like leaving her alone. As I pulled the heavy glass door open and stepped into a room that smelled like vanilla pudding mix, my salivary glands kicked into overdrive. It’d been a while since I’d had real food, but I wasn’t about to drool like one of Pavlov’s dogs over vanilla pudding mix, was I?
In the center of the convenience-store-sized room were five aisles filled with non-perishables. Grace pulled her hand out of my grasp and rushed toward the center aisle. “Where’s the Pop-Tarts?”
I followed, reaching for her hand. “I don’t think they have Pop-Tarts here,” I said, feeling the heat rise into my face. The clerk at the front of the store had probably already judged us as the type of people who ate junky breakfast products.
Grace scanned the cans. “I want chocolate Pop-Tarts.”
The clerk walked to the back room, darting a glance our way, a glance that said she knew our secret—that Grace wasn’t a normal fifteen-year-old girl. Sure, she looked normal with her trendy jeans, striped top, and hoop earrings. That was part of Mom’s plan to help her fit in. But there was always that moment of truth when people realized there was something different. It was best that way. Otherwise, she came across as rude.
Ms. Shreditor's Comments
I am a sucker for novels that open with a really succinct, really provocative first sentence. “There’s a skill set to being poor.” Seven words, no waste. Right away, we know that our narrator is poor with a strong set of survival instincts. The ensuing sentences offer us a glimpse of those survival skills at work—i.e., the duct-taped shoes and the need to obtain food without paying.
The setting is a bit unclear to me. There’s plenty of sensory imagery: the red brick, the smell of vanilla pudding, the heavy glass door. We know that this is a store-like setting wherein the narrator must somehow obtain food without paying. However, we’re not entirely clear on where she is. We know it’s a brick building roughly the size of a convenience store, but what kind of establishment is it exactly? Will the narrator be stealing to feed his or her family?
I liked the reference to Pavlov’s dogs. This unconditioned response drives home just how deeply hunger has affected these characters’ lives.
I find the character of Grace to be intriguing; however, I can’t deduce much about her condition from what we’re given. The narrator seems protective of her in a way that suggests she might harbor some sort of vulnerability. We know from the text itself that she is not a “normal fifteen-year-old girl,” a truth we see through the clerk’s objective eyes. This leaves the reader wondering whether she has some sort of psychological or developmental issue. The wondering isn’t a bad thing; the reader will pursue the answer past the first page. That’s the kind of momentum you want to build from the outset.
One thing struck me as contradictory: If these people are so poor that they live in a constant state of hunger, how does Grace have a trendy wardrobe? If the mother is so concerned about her children blending in, why would she allow another of her children to go out in public with duct-taped shoes?
Getting down to mechanics: This story presents a fantastic opportunity to explore the en dash (–). For those of you unfamiliar with the term, this dash is longer than a hyphen (-) but shorter than an em dash (—). We use this character when we want to, among other things, create compound adjectives or separate values in a range. In the third paragraph, we see a compound adjective, “convenience-store-sized,” modifying “room.” In an instance like this, when the item of comparison (i.e., convenience store) wouldn’t otherwise contain a hyphen, we use an en dash to create the compound. Thus, it becomes “convenience store–sized.” (Note: Many style guides, including the one I use at work, drop the “d” from the end of “size” when it’s used as an adjective.) Some other examples: Civil War–era coins, pages 15–30, Academy Award–winning director Ron Howard, etc.
Overall, I enjoyed this first page. The writing is quite good with very few errors. The only thing missing for me is more defining details about the narrator. Is this person male or female? Is he/she younger or older than the fifteen-year-old Grace? If this is truly the narrator’s story and not Grace’s, perhaps reveal more about him/her before introducing Grace. Because her character is portrayed so vividly, she steals the spotlight from the protagonist in the most crucial part of the book. She may be an important piece of the plot, but make sure that it’s your narrator who is driving it.