Book Review: Tales of Alvin Maker #2 – Red Prophet

Title: Red Prophet
Author: Orson Scott Card
Year of Publication: 1988
Series: Tales of Alvin Maker
#: 2
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.77
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 4

There’s Bound To Be A Few Spoilers

 red prophet

Plot Description: Following the events of the previous book, in which Alvin was injured severely and had to learn how to heal his own leg, he’s now been pronounced well enough to go back to Hatrack River, where his father has arranged for him to be apprenticed to a blacksmith. While he’s travelling with his brother Measure, they’re kidnapped by ‘Reds’ – Native Americans – who are purportedly feuding with the settlers. This is how Alvin eventually reunites with the ‘Red Prophet’, whom he had previously met in the first book.

This book might just be my favourite out of the Tales of Alvin Maker series, but that being said, I have two words that come to mind when I think of this book: “White Guilt”.

Any story set in Frontier-era America would have to feature Native American tribes, and the interactions of the settlers with them. Alvin Maker is no exception, set as it is against a backdrop of constant fighting between the white settlers and the ‘Reds’. In addition to their battles with Native American tribes, the white settlers themselves are multicultural – English, Dutch, French etc – in origin, and engage in battles amongst themselves as well.

Red Prophet features two famous historical figures in Native American history – Tenskwa Tawa and Ta-Kumsaw. The two are depicted as brothers, the former a pacifist and the latter a warrior. Tenskwa Tawa briefly appeared in Seventh Son as Lolla-wasiky, an alcoholic Native American whose addiction held a debilitating hold over him, and who was cured of the same by a chance encounter with young Alvin. Red Prophet expands on his journey and history, and his relationship with his brother, as well as his future as a ‘prophet’ for the Native Americans – one that counsels that they stay away from alcohol.

In its essence, Red Prophet is a revisionist history of the Battle of Tippecanoe, recounted from a Native American perspective as a massacre of pacifist Natives led by Tenskwa Tawa. Tenskwa Tawa and his brother also take on roles as spiritual mentors to young Alvin, to better help him understand his powers.

Stories about the Native Americans have always fascinated me, because it refers to a whole world of people I’ve never met. And that’s why I like Red Prophet. It is commendable that Card’s revisionism allows for an alternate history told from the perspective of the loser, and not the winner. The fact remains, however that Card is not Native American.

It’s always difficult and problematic to write from a perspective that is not yours. It’s not to say that one shouldn’t, but one should also remember to add the caveat. To remember that the subjects of your writing may resent you for attempting to take over their voices and tell their stories on their behalf – again (Because lets be real, that’s what happens when the winners write history).

As for the rest, Red Prophet is perhaps one of the better (or the best) books in this series. It’s decently written, suspenseful in all the right places, and has only minor plot holes. The subplots involving Governor Harrison, Tippecanoe, the curse of bloody hands, mystical whirlwinds that exist outside the time and space paradigm all fit right into the story. There are few, if any elements that jar the reader out of this world of magical fantasy and into reality.

Next in this Series: Tales of Alvin Maker #3 – Prentice Alvin

Next Review: Dark Tower #2 – The Drawing of the Three

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Book Review: Tales of Alvin Maker #1 – Seventh Son

Title: Seventh Son
Author: Orson Scott Card
Year of Publication: 1988
Series: Tales of Alvin Maker
#: 1
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.86
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 4

Mild Spoilers, If You Can Call ‘Em That

seventh son

Plot Description: In an alternate universe version of America – back in the Frontier days – Orson Scott Card presents a world filled with magic, and a reimagining of various historical persons and places.

I recently finished both this series as well as Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, and my reaction to both of them were pretty similar, so I’m going to try and review them together.

The reaction I refer to is one of extreme annoyance coupled with my ever present compulsion to have to finish the story, to know what happens at the end – no matter how badly off the rails the whole thing is going. This is, however, a reaction one forms over the course of reading the Alvin Maker series, and Seventh Son is mostly exempt from such feelings.

The title refers to the myth of a seventh son of a seventh son being a wizard – Terry Pratchett incorporates this into his Discworld novels, and Jo Rowling gives it a nod via the Weasley family (it is implied that Arthur is a seventh son, and that Ginny is the seventh child of a seventh child).

In Card’s Frontier America, almost everybody is magical in some way or the other – magic which represents itself in the form of oddball talents called ‘knacks’. But Alvin Maker, as the seventh son of a seventh son, is extremely powerful – his knack is Making (i.e. Creation of stuff).

Because of his potential for greatness, an evil known as the Unmaker keeps trying to kill Alvin from since before he was born. It is up to Peggy, a little girl whose knack is being a Torch (or seer) to foresee the dangers the Unmaker puts in little Alvin’s way and protect him from them.

Seventh Son touches on the way of life for families on the Frontier, weaving his ideas of a magical world into an already familiar tapestry. So far, so good. He also takes on religion – the Unmaker is a parallel to the Devil, or Satan, or Lucifer or whatever we want to call him, and he’s fighting to destroy Creation. As a Maker, it’s Alvin’s job to to keep creating as a way of fighting the Unmaker, but it’s made clear that it’s not a battle he’d ever win in a definitive way. Just something he’s got to keep doing. All this is told to Alvin by Taleswapper (an alternate history version of William Blake), a wandering storyteller who collects stories – personal tales – and tells them to other people.

It is also strongly implied that organized religion is really the work of the Unmaker, promoting evil through its good intentions.

There are references to the Native American tribes and the battles of the settlers with them, but this is only properly dealt with in detail from Red Prophet (second book in the series) onwards.

There are also supposed to be a number of parallels to Mormonism, but I don’t know anything about that, so I didn’t catch any of those parallels. :/

A lot of GR reviewers have complained that this book is merely – and clearly – a set up for the rest of the series, and they would be right. Seventh Son is not a stand alone book – there is just a pause at the end, and a promise to continue the tale soon. The first book however, was interesting enough to suck me in – enough that I’d probably have hunted down the second book in the series if I didn’t already have it with me. But – and here’s the catch – the rest of the series doesn’t live up to the promise of Seventh Son (let alone surpass it), so taking up this book (and by extension the rest of the series) would, in my opinion, be a waste of time.

Next In This Series: Tales of Alvin Maker #2 – Red Prophet

Next Review: Dark Tower #1 – The Gunslinger

Book Review: The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Title: The Help
Author: Kathryn Stockett
Year of Publication: 2009
Series: N/A
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.44
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 3

SPOILER WARNING

Thehelp

Plot Description: A young white woman who returns from college to Jackson, Mississippi to find that the black maid who raised her from her childhood onwards is gone. Abileen is a black maid who is currently raising her seventeenth white child. Minny, Abileen’s best friend, also works as a maid, and is one of the best cooks in the area, but her sharp tongue means she loses her job easily. Set in the Segregation-era United States, The Help tells the story of how Skeeter, the white girl, helps the black maids working in and living around her home tell their stories of working for white families.

This is a hard book for me to review, and I might not have attempted it if it weren’t for (a) my obsession with reviewing every single book I’ve ever written, (b) my interest in feminism and intersectionality, (c) the fact that I watched the movie first, loved it, read the book and only then began to wonder whether there were any problems with it.

Here’s the thing. I’m not black, I’m not white, I’m not american, and my knowledge of cultural history in the US is limited to what I’ve learned from history books, newspapers, biographies, fiction and popular media. When a friend asked me my opinion of The Help right after I’d finished reading it, I didn’t know what to tell her. I liked it, sure, but I wasn’t sure how much the book mirrored real life. I’d seen a story I liked, but I didn’t know whether it was the truth.

I then read Roxane Gay’s review of The Help in the book Bad Feminist. And it became clear to me that the story I liked wasn’t really the truth – it was a sanitized, child friendly version of the truth.

“I don’t expect writers to always get difference right, but I do expect writers to make a credible effort. The Help demonstrates that some writers shouldn’t try to write across race and difference. Kathryn Stockett tries to write black women, but she doesn’t try hard enough. Her depictions of race are almost fetishistic unless they are downright insulting. At one point in the book, Aibileen compares her skin color to that of a cockroach, you know, the most hated insect you can think of. Aibileen says, staring at a cockroach, “He big, inch, inch an a half. He black. Blacker than me.” That’s simply bad writing, but it’s an even worse way of writing difference. If white writers can’t do better than to compare a cockroach to black skin, perhaps they should leave the writing of difference in more capable hands. In The Help , Stockett doesn’t write black women. She caricatures black women, finding pieces of truth and genuine experience and distorting them to repulsive effect. She makes a very strong case for writers strictly writing what they know, not what they think they know but actually know nothing about.” – Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist

I don’t usually go searching for things in particular, so the things I read and see are the things I come across as zombie around. Which makes me wonder why it took so long for me to come across a review of The Help by a black person.

Before I read this review, I thought The Help was a good story. A little over-the-top, perhaps. Could people in real life be as Mean Girls-esque as the white married woman who were the owners of the homes that maids like Abilene and Minny worked in? Could they be as narrow minded and cliched? Reading the book gave me a growing sense of impending doom that the movie never did. Even though I’d already seen the movie, and could therefore presume that no such thing was about to happen, I read with growing apprehension as I waited for someone to catch Skeeter at Abilene’s house. I’d never even known about the existence of Jim Crow laws.

Reading The Help cleared away a little of my ignorance about the time. A lot of people I speak to tend to confuse the Civil War and the abolition of slavery with the civil rights movement. “Civil Rights Movement”, I say. They respond with “Abraham Lincoln?!” This is because, like me, they are neither black nor white, and nor are they American.

“Watching historical movies about the black experience (or white interpretations of the black experience) have become nearly impossible for the same reason I hope I never read another slave narrative. It’s too much. It’s too painful. Too frustrating and infuriating. The history is too recent and too close. I watch movies like Rosewood or The Help and realize that if I had been born to different parents, at a different time, I too could have been picking cotton or raising a white woman’s babies for less than minimum wage or enduring any number of intolerable circumstances far beyond my control. More than that, though, I am troubled by how little has changed. I am troubled by how complacently we are willing to consume these often revisionist stories of this country’s complex and painful racial history. History is important, but sometimes the past renders me hopeless and helpless.” – Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist.

And this is why The Help and books like it are important to someone like me, who is a veritable outsider to the contents of the book. Because with no other frame of reference, reading The Help forces me to take its contents as the truth. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to wonder whether there’s an alternate version of the truth, or to go looking for it. If I hadn’t already been halfway through Bad Feminist at the time, it might have taken me quite a long time to go searching for a black person’s perspective on this book. On the other hand, I might never have gone searching for it at all, and might have spent my entire life believing that The Help (or Gone With the Wind before it) were realistic representations of black people.

I would try and rate The Help on the basis of its story alone, but I can’t. I’m unable to see past the fact that people with as much right to telling the story of the Segregation era have disagreed with its version so strongly. I want more books out there that receive as much popularity as The Help did, and which give me a better understanding of worlds I’ve never seen, worlds I might not ever see. I want this book to be replaced by books that do a much better job than it did.

 Next: The Blackcoat Rebellion #1 – Pawn by Aimee Carter