This review of Seventh Son and Red Prophet, the first two volumes in Orson Scott Card’s Tales of Alvin Maker, was first published in Foundation 45, Spring 1989.
America has no mythology. No, let me correct that, white America, European America, has no mythology. Its peoples are too diverse in origin, its birth too recent, to allow myths to develop. And it is a lack that America seems to feel acutely, for there are countless attempts to shape the stuff of history into the matter of legend. Roanoke, Johnny Appleseed, John Smith and Pocahontas, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the OK Corral, the list is as endless as the invention of the dime novelists and the movie makers, but none of them quite achieve the frisson of magic necessary to lift them out of history and into the subconscious. The Tales of Alvin Maker is another attempt at myth making for the modern American, and more successful than most, perhaps because it so carefully blends an old-fashioned (but still intense and current) patriotism – America is a good place – with more modish concerns about the environment, and a collective guilt about the fate of the Indian – but it would have been so much better if we’d treated the Indians as equals, and been more in tune with the land.
These are the first two volumes in an on-going series. The third volume has already been published in the USA, and numerous stories from the sequence have appeared regularly in the magazines – the award-winning ‘Hatrack River’ forms the opening section of Seventh Son, ‘Carthage City’ is the first part of Red Prophet. It is, at this stage, difficult to judge how the completed project might turn out, but there is evidence to suggest that Card is creating, and moreover investigating, a world of such moral and political complexity that it does for once warrant this length.
The books are set around the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, a time when, in our history, the fledgling American states had just broken free from a Europe too torn by internal revolution to worry too much about a distant colony. And the new country was celebrating its hard-won independence with vigorous westward expansion. It was a time that comes as close as anything to the mythic in American history, a time of heroes like Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, and almost archetypal villains like Burr. It is a good time in which to invent a new myth. But Card begins by altering the time itself. Details are sketchy, but in this world the English revolution was more successful, for a Puritan Protector still rules the land and the Royalist cause survives only in colonies like Virginia and Carolina; the French revolution never happened, and Bonaparte appears as a French general dispatched to lead the armies of Canada. The American revolution has not happened, though Ben Franklin has invented the concept of ‘American’ to unite the disparate colonists – royalist, puritan, Dutch, Swedish, German – and a United States is beginning to form. Indeed one of the early states is the ‘Irrakwa’ Indian nation, which is presented as more technologically advanced than many of the White colonies surrounding it.
This alternate history, however, forms no more than an ill-defined background to the first volume, Seventh Son, which concentrates far more on the other great change Card has wrought. For in this world magic, of a sort, operates. It is a low-key, folkloric magic of hexes and odd talents for calming or attracting or keeping away or far-seeing, and it is intimately connected with the four elements, earth, air, fire and water. Alvin Miller, whose first ten years are recounted here, is the seventh son of a seventh son, and so naturally born to possess a great talent, though what that talent is, and his importance in the great scheme of things, is only coming to be understood by the end of the book. For Alvin is a Maker, able to shape objects around him to his will, so that mill stones emerge from the quarry already perfectly worked, cockroaches depart at his bidding to torment his sisters, and when, towards the end of the book, the powerful natural defences that surround him are pierced and his leg is horrendously broken he is able to enter his own body and reconnect veins, heal torn flesh and knit the bone.
Such a talent inevitably brings him into conflict with the greatest enemy of all, the great entropic evil of the Unmaker: ‘Alvin knew all kinds of opposites in the world: good and evil, light and dark, free and slave, love and hate. But deeper than all those opposites was making and unmaking. So deep that hardly anybody noticed that it was the most important opposite of all.’ The Unmaker is not equated with the devil; indeed, Satan is specifically reckoned to be on the side of God in this ultimate conflict. But what we have here is nonetheless that most basic, most mythic, of all struggles: good versus evil. Unfortunately the divorcing of the Unmaker from the devil is a side-stepping of the issue that is part of the problem with what is otherwise a very fine book indeed.
For there is an unavoidable clash between the natural magic practised in this world, and organised Christianity, and it is this opposition which is central to the first book. Set against Alvin is the Presbyterian preacher, Reverend Thrower, who is convinced by what we must assume is a visitation from the Unmaker that Alvin is an agent of the devil. Thrower is the least convincing character in either of these books, a catch-all for everything that goes against Alvin and his kin. He’s the sort of inflexible Christian who uses the Bible as an excuse for all his prejudices and petty-mindedness, yet he is also the man of science and stout defender of rationality, yet he is also a devout believer in phrenology (a science we are led to believe is no less discredited in that world than it is in ours), yet he is also the most superstitious of men; he is a mass of contradictions which put him so out of step with the manners and mores of the world in which he is placed that he never achieves focus as a genuine person. He is no more than a vehicle there to impel the plot along and to represent the conflict between Christianity and magic that is in every other respect ducked.
In Armor-of-God Weaver (and Card is particularly good at using such Puritan names to illustrate his characters) we have an upright Christian who has forbidden his wife natural magic, but who is blind to her practise of these arts. The conflict is there, Card is aware of it, but he avoids confronting it. Many who use magic profess Christianity, and there is a wishy-washy attempt to suggest that there is no conflict at all – after all, the Unmaker isn’t the devil, is he? But as the magic goes on to acquire blatantly Christian overtones in the second book – most notably in Lolla-Wossiky, the Red Prophet of the title, who pierces his hands and feet and with these stigmata is able to walk on water – that’s a cop-out that fails to wash.
Seventh Son, therefore, is a vividly written story of a boy coming to terms with his magic powers in frontier days. It is populated with memorable characters, and the play with historical personages that an alternate history allows, so that William Blake has a major role to play as Taleswapper who wanders the frontier gathering and disseminating stories. And in Alvin, Card has managed the difficult task of presenting a vividly realised, utterly believable ten-year-old boy who is not, as such characters so often are, an adult writ small. Yet at the heart of the book is a promise that is not quite fulfilled.
Red Prophet is considerably better. A far more robust book, more tightly plotted, it shifts the focus of the sequence to the political and moral implications of this alternate history. And it is a delight to record with what attention to detail Card has worked this out. Indeed, Alvin does not appear until a quarter of the way into the book, and that is one of its strengths. What we get instead is a tale of the shifting loyalties as various would-be leaders jockey for position in the emergent United States, complicated by the politicking of the French Canadians, and the two Indian factions led by the peaceful prophet Lolla-Wossiky and his warlike brother Ta-Kumsaw (it is not altogether clear whether this is meant to be the historical Tecumseh, who, in, our history, sided with the British in the war of 1812). It is a complicated situation, inevitably so, but it is clearly presented in an easily understandable form by means of a handful of sharply delineated characters and a succession of crisply described scenes that rise to a bloody and inevitable climax.
In many ways, Card has created an Arcadia, a never-never land that could have been if only some better decisions had been made when they were setting out on the whole enterprise of America. There are slaves still, but they are always off-screen, away in some as-yet-unvisited corner of the land. But the Indians are not objects of genocide and scorn; in some of the states they have equal political rights, the Irrakwa have their own state. Yet Card does not go too far with his wishful thinking: out on the frontier there are still Indians collecting White scalps for their Canadian paymasters, there are still whisky Indians being cynically exploited and destroyed by the Whites. And as the story develops it gives Card the opportunity to make some dramatic points about the way the Europeans exploited, destroyed and misunderstood the Native Americans. The final massacre of unarmed Indians by White men driven mad by fear, lust for revenge, and the cynical manipulation of men seeking political gain is all too familiar to anyone who has read anything of American history; yet it still becomes, in Card’s hands, a powerful morality tale, made the more so by the fate wished upon the ‘victors’ by Lolla-Wossiky as he leads the survivors away.
The character of Alvin could, all too easily, become an invulnerable superman, incapable of development, the dull stock fantasy hero. So far he has avoided this fate, and as long as Card uses him as the focus for his searching examination of the nature of America and Americans, then the Tales of Alvin Maker could well become what the blurb already claims, a major work of American fantasy. It could even be the beginnings of a myth.
My only major complaint about both these books is with the tone of voice Card has adopted. Cracker-barrel folksiness is as false as the arch high English employed in so many medieval fantasies. It’s fair enough when put into the mouths of characters, but when the authorial voice uses it also then it is a distraction, and an extra layer, another obstacle, placed between the reader and the story. I do wish Card had not given in to the temptation.