Prentice Alvin by Orson Scott Card
Cover art by James C. Christensen
Published by Tor Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
In the third volume of the Alvin Maker series, Orson Scott Card expands the scope of his story of an alternate American frontier in which folk magic has objectively observable power. In the first two volumes, the focus was almost entirely upon the White settlers of New England and the truncated United States of the Middle Atlantic region and their interactions with the Red peoples as a result of the westward push of settlement. In Seventh Son, young Alvin Maker got a lesson in the nature of life and the ethics of power from Lolla-wossiky, the whiskey Red he then healed of addiction. In the sequel, Red Prophet, we got to see the land through the eyes of the Red people, and particularly Lolla-wossiky before and after Alvin healed him of the wound in his soul.
And a very different vision it was. In Seventh Son we saw things through White eyes, and White cultural assumptions of civilization as marked borders and plowed lands. The idea of the Irri-kwa being included as equals in their world's United States appears to be a triumph of hope and justice, a promise that it is possible to overcome prejudice and attain an equal society. But in Red Prophet we see that same process as a ruining and a laying waste of a land that was once one vast glorious Green Song of life. The Irri-kwa, rather than having won equality for the Red man, had simply abandoned the ways and traditions of their people to become White in their hearts, destroying the land as rapaciously as those who had come across the Atlantic from Europe.
In it we can see echoes of Tolkien's portrayal of evil as destroying trees and laying waste to the land, but all told in a very American mode, with purely American tropes and characters. And that is the great strength of Orson Scott Card's storytelling in the Alvin Maker series, that he does not set forth to merely imitate Tolkien, but to create a particularly American epic fantasy. And even then we do not have any unthinking reuse of the standard tropes of the frontier, whether it be the old Savage Red Indian or the revisionist Noble Savage Red Indian, but an examination of what it would mean for real, living, breathing human beings to live in continual magical harmony with their environment, how it would change them even as they still remained human beings with all the flaws and frailties that are part and parcel of the Human Condition.
In this volume we are reminded that the American frontier wasn't just the conflict of the White settlers moving in on the indigenous peoples, but also the forcible transportation of people from sub-Saharan Africa to the New World in order to expropriate their labor power in the great plantations. There had been hints in the first two books that the Crown Colonies of the south with their kings were also a slaveholding land, if only because the Whites of the United States set themselves in contrast to those bad slaveholders down there. But now we get our faces shoved straight into just what it means to have a society in which some people have absolute power over other people.
Cavil Planter doesn't think of himself as an evil person. But a man has needs, and his wife Dolores is an invalid and can't be expected to meet them. So when he finds his passions stirred by her young Black maid, he initially fights off the temptation, turning to the Bible for strength. But then he is visited by a mysterious entity who calls himself the Overseer, and who speaks at once both evasively and with authority. Soon Cavil has convinced himself that he has experienced a visit by Jesus himself, but an alert and careful reader will also recall the old warning, "even the Devil can quote Scripture when it suits him."
And if there's any doubt as to the moral standing of Cavil's decisions and subsequent actions, the next chapter destroys all doubt. In it we see the consequences through the eyes of the woman he ravished, as she faces a future as the mother of a son who will be a slave, and a half-caste slave at that. Oh, the other slaves talk fine enough about how her son will be a house slave and will have light labors and fine livery and maybe even see the king in the distant south. But all she can think of is the freedom that was taken from her when her village was raided and her father was murdered. He was a king among his people, and taught her many secret magic things, but what good did it do him? His blood ran just as red as anybody else's, and he died.
But she knows one thing for certain. Her little boy-child is not going to live a slave, even if she has to use the forbidden magic of her childhood to free him. She steals two candles and melts them mixed with her own milk and spit until she can form them into a figure, to which she attaches blackbird feathers until the tiny form looks like a bird-girl. On a moonless night she throws it into the fire and lets the resultant magic transform her, allowing her to fly high and free with her baby at her breast, north to freedom.
Or almost, for the sun rises just as she's approaching the Hio river, what we would call the Ohio. Just across the water is freedom, but with her magic and her life exhausted, she's not strong enough to swim across. And while she's heard rumors that there are good White people who'll help runaway slaves escape, she knows all too well that she's just as likely to encounter someone who'll hang her and hand her child back to his master. Not to mention that the longer she waits, the more likely it becomes that her master will discover her gone and get the Finder to use his infamous knack to track her down.
But so desperate is her need that it reaches across the water to Peggy Guester, now no longer a little girl but a young woman on the threshold of adulthood, wrestling with her responsibilities to young Alvin Miller and the unhappy futures she foresees for herself and him. Peggy convinces her father and a neighbor to take a boat across the river to rescue these desperate seekers of freedom and bring them safely across. Of course they don't like her revealing what she knows of how the runaway slave came to have a biracial child -- they think it unseemly for a young woman of good character to even have such concepts in her mind, as if ignorance were to be equated with moral innocence (actually a more common idea in the Victorian era, but the anachronism can be forgiven, since in the fictional setting of the Alvin Maker books, her untoward knowledge also serves to remind them that she is a Torch, able to see into people's heartfires and see their most shameful secrets).
Even as the adults are arguing about how best to make arrangements for the baby -- they can't very well take it north to the border and hope some French Canadian will happen across it -- Peggy realizes that the child's mother is dying. So powerful was her magic and her determination to secure her child's freedom that she literally burned up all the rest of her life in a single night's flight. Oh, to be sure Alvin could use his mysterious Maker gifts to set this woman-child's body back to rights, but he's still three days out on his second attempt to take up his apprenticeship as a smith, and has no reason to believe that haste is required and he should use the Red skills he'd learned among Ta-Kumsaw's people to make his journey swifter.
Thus there is nothing to do but see to it that her body receives a proper burial, and that her son grows up in the best environment possible. And here Card shows us unflinchingly just what kind of society the American frontier is. Even his good people who hate slavery still live in a society in which one's race by and large determines one's station in life, and they know they cannot undo that reality simply by willing it so. They can playfully name the little mixup lad Arthur Stuart to twit the nose of the king of the slaveholder Crown Colonies, but they can't give him a full range of opportunities equal to those enjoyed by a White person, just because it would be the right thing to do. Society places a ceiling on his attainments, whether he or they like it or not, and will expect him to know his place.
However, Peggy also comes to realize that she can break free of the pattern of futures she'd foreseen for herself and Alvin, and perhaps she can thread her way through to a better future. It means leaving the only home she's ever known, a home she's avoided leaving because she's felt a strong obligation to those around her. But she's coming to see an even greater obligation to a future she can only dimly see, a future that may promise either a glorious Crystal City or a terrible war of destruction, depending upon the small choices that will be made in this land in the next few years.
And that's just the first few chapters. The real meat of the story begins three years later, as young Alvin is struggling through his apprenticeship under Makepeace Smith, a hard and grasping man whose name seems to be naught but mocking irony. Raised to do good work, Alvin had thrown himself into his new trade with a will, never considering the possibility that he might be better off to dissimulate and pretend less talent than he in fact possessed. So his master sees him as something to be exploited, and thus doles out knowledge only grudgingly, thus hoping to claim that Alvin is not ready to be released at the end of his contract and hold him in perpetuity. It's only by careful observation that Alvin's learned anything at all from the boss-man, and he's becoming increasingly frustrated by the situation.
Thus he's in a very bad frame of mind when the dowser comes to locate water for a new well. Of course the dowser doesn't help it, poking at Makepeace Smith's injured pride until what should've been a minor disagreement blows up into a major confrontation and a vicious punishment. Alvin's angry enough that he decides that he's going to show that dowser that he doesn't know half as much as he thinks he does about how things work underground. So Alvin digs the well right where the dowser indicated, right down to the shelf of rock at the bottom -- and then digs a second, working well a little further down where the rock is broken up and can be removed.
But in doing so he opens himself to his old enemy the Unmaker, entropy personified, who has been seeking to destroy him since he was too little to remember. As the crushing presence descends upon him, Alvin tries to fight it off with his usual techniques, only to have them prove inadequate. In his desperation he can barely think, but then he realizes that in trying to exact his revenge upon both his master and the dowser, he was attempting to destroy the latter's reputation -- and thus doing the Unmaker's work for him. But the obvious way to make things right isn't possible, for to destroy a well once it's been used is to bring misfortune upon oneself. So he has to take another path, drawing upon his Maker knack.
Even as Alvin is learning yet another lesson in the perils of allowing pettiness to pull him away from the godly use of his God-given gift, young Peggy is learning lessons that may help her become someone who won't turn into the bitter, nagging wife she's foreseen herself becoming. Already she has a long-range plan, and it starts with the arrival of a new schoolteacher in her old home town. A relentlessly plain older woman -- or is she? When women usually use hexery to make themselves more attractive to men, why would a woman want to make herself unremarkable?
Meanwhile, Cavil Planter's trying to find his missing slave and her infant son, and he's acquired some help from a certain Reverend Philadelphia Thrower, a man the alert reader will recognize from the first book. Thrower has also received visitations from the mysterious stranger, and as they compare notes, they decide to create a service dedicated to locating runaway slaves and returning them to their masters in spite of all the northerners' efforts to turn a blind eye and pretend they can't recognize their local Blacks as anybody's runaway. It's a perfect example of Solzhenitsyn's dictum that in order to do great evil, one must first convince oneself that one is in fact doing good.
Thus this volume takes the meditations upon ethics that have been at the core of the story from its inception and broaden them. No longer is the struggle of right and wrong just a matter of one individual's choices. Instead, we see how great questions of good and evil can involve whole nations and cultures, and the answers aren't always simple or obvious. What may seem like peacemaking may in fact be moral compromise that enmeshes the well-meaning into corruption, or worse may in fact only put off the day of reckoning so that when the inevitable battle finally comes, it will be far more bitter and destructive than it might have been had the two sides confronted one another when the quarrel was still small.
Which was pretty much happened in the decades before the Civil War in our own world. In school we're often taught about the Missouri Compromise and the other deals that were cut to reduce the level of conflict between the free and slave states as though they were grand and noble things. In fact, from the hindsight of a century and a half, it's just as likely that all that careful work in fact just increased the level of tension, papering over a fault line that grew steadily deeper with every passing year, piling bitterness upon anger on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line such that when the rupture finally came, it would become a nightmarish total war that would end with the South crushed and embittered, determined not to give in to Reconstruction -- and thus to a century of Jim Crow inequality that would only end with yet another violent confrontation, the Civil Rights Movement which came close at times to becoming yet another civil war.
However, no matter how grand or broad the societal conflict, in the end it must be carried out in the form of the choices and actions of individuals, one by one. And thus it is in the ending of this novel, coming full circle to the young lad Arthur Stuart with whom it began. An ending of both tragedy and hope, and with it a fresh beginning that offers new hope for the rest of the series.
Review posted December 10, 2011.
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