Exploring the art of prose


Favorite Opening: “North Of,” Marie-Helene Bertino

Favorite Opening: “North Of,” Marie-Helene Bertino

There are American flags on school windows, on cars, on porch swings. It is the year I bring Bob Dylan home for Thanksgiving.

We park in front of my mom’s house—my mom, who has been waiting for us at the door, probably since dawn. Her hello carries over the lawn. Bob Dylan opens the car door, stretches one leg and then the other. He wears a black leather coat and has spent the entire ride from New York trying to remember the name of a guitarist he played with in Memphis. I pull our bags from the trunk.

“You always pack too much,” I say.

A great short story opening—or a great opening to any piece—should make the reader want to turn the page. This opening to Marie-Helene Bertino’s wonderful story does this in multiple ways.

First, we get Bob Dylan and the idea that our unnamed narrator is bringing him home for Thanksgiving. Somehow, we don’t expect to encounter real people in fiction, so when that happens, it’s of interest. Here, Dylan is treated like a normal character, like any guy the narrator might bring home for Thanksgiving. And the first line of dialogue reemphasizes that point, as the narrator complains about Dylan’s bag. The humor is elevated by the narrator often using Dylan’s full name–and this continues through the story—when he is mentioned.

The use of the present tense is another way in which this story opening is effective. If Bertino had used the past tense, the passage wouldn’t be as alive as it is. There’s something about the present tense that always inserts energy and interest. Later, the story will move around in time but always stay fixed in the present tense: the past always looming just as large as the present.

“North Of” is included in Marie-Helene Bertino’s collection Safe As Houseswhich received the 2012 Iowa Short Fiction Award, judged by Jim Shepard.

by Laura Spence-Ash