John C. Hansen
Tor , September 1995. Hardcover:
Suggested retail price: $24.95 (US)
Audience: Adults and teenagers regardless of religion, race, or political persuasion
Alvin is driven from Vigor Church by false accusations and innuendo. Calvin, his younger brother, driven by envy and greed, leaves as well with a mind to learn on his own how to manipulate and control his way into power - and, eventually, revenge. Calvin heads toward Europe while Alvin makes his way with Arthur Stuart back to Hatrack River. After a run-in with a kind-hearted English lawyer named Verily Cooper, Calvin determines to gain an audience with Napolean. Alvin, on the other hand, finds that when he reaches Hatrack River all is not well there either. His old master, Makepeace Smith, has sworn out a warrant for his arrest. Also, his old nemesis, Reverend Thrower, is working to have Alvin extradited to Appalachee to be tried for the murder of a Finder. So Alvin sits in jail awaiting a trial that could end with his life. Throw in a salamander, a golden plow, Mike Fink, a host of new townspeople with extraordinary knacks, and a hex or two and you have a very explosive mix in Hatrack River.
Mike Austin recently wrote: "I think that the most significant thing that Card will ever write will be the books in the Alvin Maker Series that he hasn't written yet. If he follows through with the hints he has been dropping, he should use these volumes to take on some of the most compelling ideas in Mormon theology: Zion, community, redemption--all of the good stuff." Card had already completed the manuscript for Alvin Journeyman(hereafter referred to as AJ) at the time this message was posted on the Association for Mormon Letters electronic mailing list (email@example.com). Interestingly, AJ does contains significant writing. In fact, readers will find a good deal of "compelling ideas [from] Mormon theology" within the pages of this rather complex story. As hoped for, AJ finds Card "tak[ing] on ... the good stuff". Or, at least, some of it.
Card writes about Zion. In AJ Alvin Smith anguishes over his vision of the Crystal City: "I don't how to build it. I don't know where to build it. I don't even know why to build it, except that it ought to exist and I ought to make it exist." Taleswapper tries to get Alvin to leave his family at Vigor Church to go find out the how, the where, and the why of establishing the Zion known in Card's Alvin Maker universe as the Crystal City. He tells Alvin, "There's Making almost everywhere.& .& . And where there isn't Making, there's still old made things being torn down, and you can learn from them, too." He chides Alvin for burying his talent of gold, referring to the gold plow Alvin made in Prentice Alvin. Eventually, Alvin does leave, his efforts at teaching Makery in Vigor Church abandoned. He's fairly driven out like early Mormons were from Far West and elsewhere.
Card weaves into his tale a number of powerful questions. Questions like how a Zion community would be populated. Are all those who live in a Maker's city Makers themselves? Or can those with lesser knacks find residence as well? How do you learn to make when there are no Master Makers to learn from? Perhaps the biggest question, which largely remains unanswered, is why, as Card writes, "Calvin went the way he did." In that regard Card has his narrator wonder, "what was it made jealousy start to gnaw at Calvin's heart and turn him away from his own brother and want to undo all his work?" The narrator later says that in spite of all he knows about Alvin and Calvin he simply doesn't know why Calvin turned out the way he did and suggests that those who really are ignorant but think they know are a sorry lot. Card may be making a point to those who think they know the why's and wherefore's of Joseph Smith when he writes, "If you already figure you know this story, for heaven's sake stop reading now.& .& . [H]istory's got no bows on it, only frayed ends of ribbon and knots that can't be untied. It ain't a pretty package.& .& ." But,of course, as AJ unfolds it seems clear that while those on the outside looking in see a poorly wrapped and tarnished package those inside, while living complicated and often harsh and painful lives, are living mighty pretty and exceptionally worthwhile ones as well when you get right down to the heart of the matter.
Card writes about community. He uses concepts similar to those found in his Ender series such as philotic twining. In so doing he explores ideas that can be found at the core, deep within the doctrines of Mormonism. Alvin talks about being alone if he leaves Vigor Church and separates himself from the community he is an integral part of there. The imagery invoked when he ponders the matter brings to mind the Mormon concepts of leaving pre-earth life and heading out in mortality to be tried and schooled in becoming like God. Alvin must leave his home to learn how to become a Maker. Card writes powerfully when he has Alvin think, "that no orchestra could ever make a music more beautiful than the voices of his family moving in and out of their homes and barns and the millhouse and the shops in town, threads of music binding him to this place so that even though he knew Taleswapper was right and he ought to leave, he couldn't bring himself to go. How did Calvin ever do it? How did Calvin leave this music behind him?" Of course, the very "threads" that Alvin found so orchestral in their beautifully binding way Calvin must have found choking, discordant, and restrictive.
This dichotomy of elder brother - younger brother who is nearly as "bright" and powerful as his older brother continues throughout AJ and may well prove to be the primary tale of the remaining two books in the Tales of Alvin Maker. Alvin plays the role of Creation's champion while Calvin appears to be casting himself as Unmaking's dark knight. Calvin's penchant for self-deception fits this role well. In fact, the entire scenario of Calvin competing with Alvin to be the "best" Maker can be read as a thoughtful examination of the issues involved in the War in Heaven. While Alvin would teach his friends lovingly to be like him, Calvin would use lies, violence, half-truths, and compulsion to coerce those beneath himself to call him Maker. Taleswapper says it this way, "if you hurt people enough, eventually they'll all call you whatever you want. .& . . But you don't change yourself a bit. All you do is change the meanings of those words, so they all mean the same thing: Bully."
Another very interesting examination of community and gathering is found in Card's portrayal of Hatrack River. Card writes in his acknowledgements about the online community he created on America On-Line and the irresistible temptation he felt to write as many characters from this town as possible into the storyline of AJ. As he does this Card develops a fascinating version of the phenomena that surrounded the life of Joseph Smith. He has Alvin ponder the remarkable growth of Hatrack River since he left it not so long ago: "Mighty knacks was thick underfoot in Hatrack River. Most towns might have somebody with something of a knack that you might notice. Most knacks, though, was pretty plain..& .& . But here in Hatrack River, the knacks was downright astonishing." Card mentions a number of examples of this strange development. He has Alvin continue pondering the strangeness of it all: "here they were living in the middle of nowhere, Hatrack River, of all places, swelling the numbers of the town but yet nobody seemed to find it remarkable at all that so many knacks was gathered here."
As Card has Alvin searching his mind for a possible explanation for the gathering going on in Hatrack River, some of his readers may quickly find the explanation that escapes Alvin. Just as thousands gathered at the banks of a river in the late 1830s in "reality" we see similar swellings along the banks of Hatrack River in Card's universe. Skilled craftsmen and those with knacks for needful things flocked to a city known as Nauvoo and Card begins the tale of just such a miraculous gathering as he prepares to write the story of the Making of a Crystal City and, ultimately, the death of its Maker. But, here in Hatrack, as in Nauvoo (and elsewhere) the people gather, not for the sake of the man, but for the sake of the man's vision. They gather to make something bigger than themselves; something that will outlast themselves. And as in Nauvoo, where not only the good in heart gathered, so too in Hatrack River the forces of Unmaking gather as well. Card weaves this glistening thread masterfully into the main fabric of his cloth.
Card also writes about redemption. In AJ, Card points often toward the ultimate redemption of America. What will it take to wash the bloody stains of slavery from the hands and hearts of the colonists? Peggy Larner, Alvin's one-time teacher, has taken up the challenge to change the hearts of slave owners in Appalachee. As Card writes about her labors he tells of those who saw slavery for the evil that it was; those, who, as he writes, "were made miserable by the wealth that came from the labor and suffering of the blacks that had been stolen from their native land and brought against their will to this dark continent of America." But Peggy's actions lead not just toward liberty for the slaves but toward war as well. A redemptive, cleansing war. A war that would wash a nation clean in the blood of many saviors. Card has Peggy say well: "the slaves themselves bore the lash and had lost it all; how much would White men and women suffer in order to free them? What did Christ suffer, for the sake of others?" So Alvin Maker's America heads toward bloody battles of brother against brother in many more ways than one.
Redemption, however, in AJ comes on an individual level as well. Mike Fink tells Peggy Larner about his fight with Alvin back in Red Prophet and about how Alvin showed Mike what pain was. Mike had hands laid upon him, first to break him and then to heal him. He recalls, "I meant to kill him, and he knowed it. But he didn't kill me. .& .& . He had mercy. .& .& . So he laid hands on my legs and he fixed them. Fixed my legs, so the bones was stronger than before. What kind of man does that to a man as tried to kill him not a minute before?" Mike Fink's heart was healed as much as his legs were by first the sharp reproof and then afterwards the increase of love. But, lacking full redemption, he still feels unworthy to be Alvin's friend and seeks, instead, to repay his debt by protecting Alvin from those who wish him dead. Peggy does her best to convince Mike that Alvin would accept him as he is, a good man, and that Alvin doesn't need men with swords cutting the ears off his enemies. What Alvin needs, she tells Mike, is friends who won't betray him. What Card creates in AJ is a type of Orrin Porter Rockwell. He has Peggy see a day, "when Mike Fink would go away from a prison cell in tears, knowing that Alvin would surely die if he wasn't there, but knowing also that Alvin refused to have him, refused to let him stand guard." The parallels to the events of Joseph Smith's life and death resonate well. Card plays this story like a well-tuned harp.
Card has written elsewhere that the best stories are usually about discovering, belonging to, and losing each other. AJ, ifCard's criteria is allowed, is one of those "most powerful and true stories" to which he refers. In it Alvin experiences all three of these critical aspects of human interaction. A recent review called AJ a "legal thriller". Although much of the storyline plays out in the courtroom and jail cell, involving lawyers and judges, AJ is anything but a "[jab] at lawyers and the justice system." What is AJ really? It is a treatise on humanity. It is both poignant and powerful. It asks more questions than it answers, leaving the answers for its readers to supply. But, then again, in so doing it does answer an important question: How do we find the answers to life's questions? Through our own journeyings and experiences. The answers won't be handed to us in a nicely gift-wrapped package.
It has been written that those who write about what they think truly come to know those things. Card knows humanity. He knows good and he knows evil. Over the course of the Tales of Alvin Maker he has planted many seeds and nourished them with good words. Now they're beginning to bear fruit. A fruit that is both delicious and desirable. Those who eat Card's fruit end up wiser and more aware of their humanity and the humanity of those around them. AJ is wellworth the eating. As Aunt Becca would say, "Do sup with me."
Reviewer: John C. Hansen, JohnBinder@aol.com
© 1995 John C. Hansen