First Page Critique – Tree of Heaven

Happy Monday!

Today we’re reviewing the first page of a book entitled ‘Tree of Heaven’. My comments follow.

Tree of Heaven

18 September 1833, Zoar, Ohio

“I’ll get what’s coming to me, I will!”

The bellow of a man’s voice punctured the late morning’s peace and brought Adelaide Bechtmann to a standstill outside Josef’s log cabin.

She ducked under the low-hanging branches of an apple tree, snagging a bonnet tie on a leafy twig. She jerked it loose. What should she do? Call out? Had they seen her? Heard her?

A glance through the open door of the cabin allayed her concern. Engrossed in their argument, the men saw none but each other.

The Separatists’ leader faced the stranger across the table that centered the one-room cabin. His face flushed, and his fists tightened on the edge of a chair. “I owe you nothing, nothing.”

“You signed her indenture.”

What? Indenture? What did he mean?

Adelaide studied the man stylishly dressed in gray and white striped trousers, checkered waistcoat, and long-tailed black coat. Whatever was he doing in Zoar? Plain-dressed and plain spoken, the Separatists seldom saw such finery, though Adelaide had encountered men so adorned in Bolivar when she’d gone to the city for a birthing.

The man shook a paper in Josef’s face. “You owe me for—”

“She died, you fool.” Josef batted the paper away. “You can’t collect from a dead woman.”

Dead woman? Who’s dead? And what’s an indenture?

The man’s chin jutted. “You signed for her.”

“I signed for them all. I was, am, their leader. And I settled all my debts before I left Philadelphia.”

The stranger waved toward the outdoors, and Adelaide scooted back against the tree. “All this land, this industry, this prosperity that you’ve built on the backs of these people. You’ve the money to pay.”

They did indeed. Pride rushed through Adelaide. Only ten years old when they’d arrived, she’d watched her fellow Separatists work hard to carve their village out of the wilderness, helping as she could, totting baskets, buckets, and boxes to waiting workers. By their efforts, tenacity, and, Josef would say, the grace of God, they’d prospered in this new land.

My comments

Overall, this first page successfully sets a scene of a conflict in what I assume is a straightforward historical fiction novel (at least on the first page I don’t see the signs of either a mystery or thriller to come). I liked the way that Adelaide stumbles upon the argument and how we get, quickly and easily, a sense of the conflict to come. The speech and inner voice sounds authentic for the time period and I like the immediacy of the situation. My main quibbles really come down to two main areas: Historical grounding and voice.

Historical grounding

I admit I am not well versed in American history, so I did look up Zoar and Bolivar in Ohio and the early 19th century German separatists who settled there. However, the key to any historical novel is that a reader shouldn’t have to have (1) any prior understanding of the historical period; or (2) have to look up the historical references to understand what is going on. I do think, even on this very first page, we need more grounding in the historical period. One option, if the author doesn’t want to interrupt the flow of the first page, is to have a brief summary in either a prologue (yes, the dreaded prologue) or another hint – say a newspaper or historical excerpt that gives the reader a quick ‘heads up’ before the story begins. For example, if I’d had a quote from one of the German separatist leaders about their reasons for coming to Ohio, their journey, and settlement then I would have been able to place everything on the first page in better context (rather than having to do an internet search to see who the separatists were and why they had come to America).

I do like the paragraph about her noticing the stranger’s clothes – especially the old-fashioned use of words. This definitely felt authentic. Th page could have done with more description to be able to visualize the setting and the characters. In historical fiction, you have a little more leeway to introduce exposition like this early on as it helps ground a reader in the time period (particularly for readers who have no real sense of what the 1830s would have been like in America). More sensory information would have been great to really make a reader feel like they were there (the smell of smoke from the fire, maybe cooking (?), the stranger’s cologne or other elements to make us feel we are right there with Adelaide looking on at the scene).

That being said, I liked that we didn’t get a huge historical data dump, and that the author led with action and character interaction in this first page. This, however, leads to my second comment, which is a question of voice.

Voice

In this first page we don’t really get a strong sense of voice from Adelaide yet. Her inner questions suggest someone young – maybe a teenager or young adult – and yet we aren’t entirely sure why she seems to have no idea what indenture meant. Again, not being an expert on American history, I don’t have a strong handle on this time period, but based on what I have read it sounds like indentured servitude was a common practice given the need for labor at the time. So my question would be, why would she not know the word? Also when Josef speaks of the woman being dead I would assume in a small knit community Adelaide might be able to make some guess as to who the dead woman might be – rather than thinking ‘what dead woman’, I would expect her to think ‘did he mean X?’ or perhaps she knows Josef is lying…again, that isn’t clear on this first page.

Voice is critical to any first page – it’s what sets a book apart and what draws a reader in from the start – so my key recommendation is to make Adelaide’s voice stronger and unique. If she is a young adult then make sure the reader knows her age and understands her confusion. At the moment she sounds hesitant (doesn’t want them to know she’s there) and naive. This is fine but sometimes a stronger, more interesting voice can intrigue a reader. I, for one, wanted two girls to be there – one (Adeliade) who was quite prepared to go striding in there and demand to know what was happening and the other a girl holding her back (representing the more historically ‘appropriate’ type of young woman). At the moment there’s nothing about Adelaide yet that makes me want to keep reading her story (and because it is her POV as a reader I’m assuming it is her story).

Overall, I think this first page had a lot of appealing elements. It sounds like an intriguing time and place for a novel and I would love to read more about the separatists’ experience in America. With some fine tuning I think this first page could start a compelling historical novel – with the focus being on historical grounding and strength of voice.

So TKZers what do you think? What constructive comments would you give our author?

 

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11 thoughts on “First Page Critique – Tree of Heaven

  1. I don’t read historical fiction, but I did enjoy this first page. I also know nothing of the Separatists, but that didn’t bother me as I assumed more would be told as the novel continued.

    I do think the voice could be strengthened to give us a better picture of Adelaide. Her thoughts, while good, seem a little generic. She’s mildly curious, but there’s nothing beyond that. Is she eager to tell someone? Is she worried about being caught listening?

    Also, was she going to Josef’s cabin or just happened to be passing by? And if she was going there, why?

    Again, overall I really enjoyed this and I think it’s a solid foundation for the novel’s opening. Good job!

    • I agree that there’s a good foundation here and I think you make a good point that Adelaide does feel a little generic at the moment. Strengthening her voice would really help. It’s always hard when just looking at the first page as often, especially with historical fiction, some of the details emerge the very next page – I certainly think as long as more historical information was given to us soon after the first page, there’s enough grounding to move forward.

  2. I like this opening very much. I think the voice might be stronger if we could sense Adelaide’s personal relationship to the head of the separatists. If she identified with him and felt threatened on his behalf, she would have a personal stake in the outcome of the argument. She should be more than a passive observer if we are to engage with her. I would have liked more description of the two men, maybe description emotionally colored by her involvement in the scene. This is an intriguing beginning but I think it needs to be filled out a little.

    • Agreed – just a little more detail and we’d have a stronger sense of Adelaide and her relationship with Josef – then we might get a sense of the stakes involved and our emotional involvement would be heightened.

  3. Good clear grounding in time and place. I don’t know the specifics of Separatists in OH, but I’m willing to wait. Also, since there wasn’t a dreaded info dump on the first page, I trust the author to weave the historical details in as needed.

    A few suggestions:

    Include Josef’s name when he’s introduced as the Separatists’ leader.

    Call the man a “stranger,” which reinforces his possible danger/threat to the tight-knit community.

    Expand Adelaide’s questions about the dead woman. To amplify Clare’s suggestion, try something like, “No one had died in recent months. Could Josef, an honest man of principle, be lying? Was he trying to protect a woman who was actually alive from this sinister stranger?”

    I agree with Clare that “indenture” would probably be a familiar term to even the young. But perhaps adults speak about it in whispers, pushing the children away when the topic comes up. Adelaide has heard it, but doesn’t really understand what it means, except that it’s something bad. That adds to the threat of the unknown for her. Suggest you substitute this worry for the mundane description of “totting” (think you mean, toting) baskets. The reader assumes everyone in a pioneer community helps to build it, so describing her contribution on the first page seems unnecessary when the author could better use the valuable real estate of page 1 to increase tension and introduce conflict more fully.

    Of course, I’m assuming Adelaide is about to be indentured by the stranger, who perhaps sees her lurking under the apple tree and says to Josef, “If you don’t give me the original woman, I’ll take HER instead.”

    Good clean writing and a promising start. Keep at it, brave author!

    • Agree that the writing is very clean and a great, promising start! It’s always hard when we just have the first page but I do think that perhaps the last paragraph could wait and more details on the stakes/threat to Adelaide could make the start more compelling.

  4. A few quick comments:

    The writing seems very solid and competent. It was refreshing not to have to weed through tons of technical errors. The author clearly understands the correct way to begin a novel, and the writing gives a very good first impression. That being said, in order to get me to keep reading, the opening would have to “grab me” a little more, just because there are so many choices out there. However, if I were locked in a room with nothing but this book and a television, I’d keep reading!

    An article called “What do you look for in historical fiction?” by Chip MacGregor is a good read. I look for the same kinds of things. Elizabeth Crooks wrote an article called “Seven Rules for Writing Historical Fiction” that the author and other folks here may enjoy, as well. It’s available online. Best of luck, and congratulations on a very good start! Barbara Kyle is one of my favorite writers of historical fiction, and the author might want to get her to look at this and offer suggestions.

    • Thanks for the great recommendations. It’s such a brave thing to put a first page out there for critique and I certainly say ‘bravo!’ to this author. The elements are there – just a little more and I think the ‘grab’ will totally be there.

      • Writing takes courage, and no one is ever going to please everybody all of the time. In fact, there are certain readers who will not gravitate toward historical fiction, no matter how wonderfully it is written. There’s a pie graph (http://www.freelancewritinggigs.com/2015/10/the-most-popular-book-genres/) that shows that historical fiction gets about a 3% slice.

        I agree that this writer did a great job and should definitely continue tweaking this writing, because it’s good stuff. It was a pleasure to read.

  5. Not being the sharpest knife in the drawer, I had to read this first page twice to get what was going on. I’m not a lover of sentence tags but a few might have helped understand that Adelaide was the speaker (or thinker) of several of the sentences. Like What? Indenture? What did he mean? (thought Adelaide.)
    This also seemed like a change of topic.
    I think it important that the opening of a story not only be grabbing (this one is) but it shouldn’t make the reader work just to understand the scene.
    The second time through and reading the above comments helped. But if I’m standing in a good book store looking for a new read, I would have passed because the scene didn’t have a purpose that I understood.

  6. I like it. I like historical fiction about otherwise obscure periods of history. If I read this, I’d look forward to learning about the Separatist movement in Ohio and, evidently, a culture of indentured servitude.

    That said, this really bothered me:

    ——————–
    She ducked under the low-hanging branches of an apple tree, snagging a bonnet tie on a leafy twig. She jerked it loose. What should she do? Call out? Had they seen her? Heard her?
    ——————–

    You’ve added this almost movie style narrative voice with all the questions that should be in her head, not in the narrative:

    What should she do?
    Call out?
    Had they seen her?
    Heard her?
    Tune in next week for the next episode of “The Perils of Adelaide!” (fade to black)

    Consider either restyling this into internal dialogue or inferring it with her actions (pure stream of consciousness, exaggerated a bit for emphasis):

    ————-
    Creeping through the tangle of low-hanging branches, Adelaide froze at the tug on her bonnet string. Unsure what to do next, she whirled around, relieved to see that the loose tie was only snagged. Concerned about being seen, she worked at the knot with trembling fingers, the sound of the rustling leaves like thunder in her ears.
    ————-

    Infer her feelings rather than dramatically state them.

    Nano-typo-nit: totting buckets = toting buckets

    All that, I like it. Depending on what I’d read on the back cover, I’m expecting that Adelaide is about to be caught up in this indentured servant mess, that the dead women mattered to her, and that the stranger is up to no good.

    Terri

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