"The territory of Alta California, a network of scattered settlements on the lower edge of an empty American West, had a number of visitors during the Spanish and Mexican period."
— Kevin Starr, Americans and the California Dream: 1850-1915
"F——— went forward into the forecastle as a common sailor, and lost the handle to his name, while young foremast Jim became Mr. Hall, and took up his quarters in the land of knives and forks and tea-cups."
— Richard Henry Dana Jr., Two Years Before the Mast
Today's selections are not just not crime, they're not even fiction. But they are taken from works of great imaginative power (Starr's preface invokes the imagination, a wonderful thing for a historian to do), and they would not be out of place in a kind of crime novel I especially like to read—hard-boiled with a humorous edge.
Starr's first. The sentence above is not just the first in his book, but the first in his multivolume history of California. Read the sentence, and I hope you'll agree that "had a number of visitors" is a delightfully understated way to begin a history, particularly of an area so dominated by people who arrived from elsewhere.
And can you think of a more entertaining way to portray the difference between living conditions of a ship's officers and its ordinary sailors than Dana's reference to officers' quarters as "the land of knives and forks and tea-cups"? The description is not just amusing, it's supremely economical. Its eight (or nine) words tell you all you need to know about how both classes live.
© Peter Rozovsky 2014
Labels: California, first lines, history, Kevin Starr, Richard Henry Dana Jr.