Card - Tales of Alvin Maker

September 17, 2004

Orson Scott Card
Seventh Son - 1987
Red Prophet - 1988
Prentice Alvin - 1989
Journeyman Alvin - 1995
Heartfire - 1998
The Crystal City - 2003
TBA - future publication

Card has started an extensive series of stories about an alternate Joseph Smith living in an alternate United States. I don't normally like to read fiction set within my time period - the nagging inconsistencies bother me. I liked these, both because it is sufficiently fantasy-based to be different, and because Card is relying on a good set of historical sources as he draws his characters and personalities.

He has written six of his seven books so far. I have read Richard Bushman's very good biography of Joseph Smith, so I know what will happen in the seventh volume.

What I found fun about these was the twists and turns that Card makes with the historical record. What I found impressive, especially for a historical fiction, was that Card's versions of the founders and the second generation are pretty close to my take on the guys. Card introduces Franklin, William Blake (exported from England for this tale), John Adams, Andrew Jackson and others to his alternate history. Each of these is reasonably recognizable as the historical figure. They appear in cameos, so we don't expect much depth, and Card takes one aspect or facet of this historical person's character and presents it fairy clearly. His John Adams is stubborn, principled, and difficult. His Abe Lincoln is an idealized verion of the affable (failed) storekeeper, before he starts his second career as a railroad lawyer. His Calhoun, who lives in the Stuart kingdom that occupies what would be the Chesapeake and the Carolinas, is cranky because he wants to be king but never will be.

The other neat thing about these books is his notion of a knack. Magic works in this world. White men organize their natural talent into knacks - the ability to do something easily, effectively, and with little effort. Some knacks involve other people - a knack for seeing who is lying, a knack for showing people the side of themselves they like to see - other knacks involve the physical world - a knack for fitting things together, or finding water with a dowsing stick, or handling horses. Indians, in Card's vision, organize themselves around a greenway of communion with nature, blacks build fetishes and dolls, but all have the same innate magical talents. In fact, Indians in his Iroquois Confederacy, who take over early industrialization from his New England, are all bound up in iron and steam, and have knacks like the white men.

I liked this in part because his notion of a knack matches up with the early 19th century notion of a genius. These days we think of genius as a state of general brilliance. Folks at the time thought of genius as a particular talent for acting or thinking. John Quincy Adams spent a lot of time trying to figure out what was the nature of his genius - he never quite figured it out. It also matches with the avocation, that which we like to do, and reminds us that one secret to success and happines is to find your avocation and make it your vocation - work at what you like and at what you do well. (An aside, I like history but am not all that good at doing it. Am I following my avocation?)

These are a nice read. I am writing them up as a block because I read them as a block. They are all parts of a single long tale. And, I suspect that the telling will be far more interesting than the conclusoin. By the end of Crystal City we can see Card already setting up his version of Nauvoo, complete with violation of state and national laws, aggressive local militia, and angry neighbors.

If you like these novels, read Bushman's biography.

Posted by Red Ted at September 17, 2004 10:00 AM | TrackBack
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