The Tales of Alvin Maker

Tim: About a month ago now, I left for a vacation (not that my vacation was a month long, just that it started a month ago) and instead of reading The Moviegoer, which I was not enjoying, I instead started a book series by Orson Scott Card called “The Tales of Alvin Maker.” It’s a curious and often wonderful little series of books, and I’ve had the pleasure of tearing through the first four (of six) in sequence. The first book, Seventh Son, introduces the alternate-history early America in which the books are set, as well as a quasi-magical element that permeates this version of history. Many, if not most, characters have one or another sort of “knack,” a special ability of sorts that’s more like a heightened sense than anything truly supernatural (with a few exceptions). The main characters are wholly fictional, but there’s also a delightful undercurrent of stuff pulled from actual history. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Ben Franklin are all mentioned by name (the third of whom is very briefly present), and my particular favorite example is William Blake, the poet, who wanders in and out of the story at various times as a bard in the classical sense – a wandering storyteller, a nomad. The story goes plenty of interesting spots from there, but the setting alone, and the not quite magical realist, not quite fantastic way that knacks are woven into the very fabric of the world, hooked me almost immediately. If you’re looking for an easy, but not mindless read, I highly recommend the series.

Debby: Sounds pretty interesting! Could you give me an example of a “knack”? Just for curiosity’s sake.

Tim: Sure. So the main character’s name is Alvin, and his father is a miller by trade. After they’ve moved out to a new town on the frontier, they need to cut a new millstone. So the father and Alvin’s brothers (he’s one of the youngest) go out to cut one, but instead of one of the older men, it’s little Alvin who’s entrusted with the cutting. As he explains it, he’s got a feel for the stone, knows where the natural fissures run, so he knows how to cut a perfect stone where it breaks free with almost no effort. There are also examples of more classical knacks, like dowsers (people who can sense water, and so know where to dig wells), but it’s usually more like if someone became a carpenter, it’s probably because they’ve a natural affinity (added to learned skill) for seeing how wood can fit together just so.

All this becomes especially interesting when the religious ingredient is added. In America, most people accept knacks as like any other skill. But in England, knacks are outlawed, viewed as witchcraft. And then, of course, there’s the idea of how these quasi-supernatural gifts fit in with Christianity, and religion at large.

Debby: Woah. Okay now my interest is piqued. For some reason, my mind jumped to Neil Gaimon’s “American Gods,” in which he also addresses religion in American society (in a completely different way, I’m sure, but the element of fantasy seems to tie these two authors together in my mind). Supernatural gifts and such are so downplayed in modern society. We have “talented” musicians and “world-class” athletes. We have “geniuses” and “moguls,” but we like to think of these things as accomplishments of nature and nurture: you’re either born a genius or you work hard to develop these talents. Having uncanny, supernatural abilities is beyond our rational thinking in this day and age.

Tim: Well, and that’s so funny, because the people in this book, and those who know the most about knacks especially, would consider them both a pure expression of unadulterated nature and (at their peak) an act of pure creativity.

Debby: Oh really? Well. That’s different than what I was picturing. But still fascinating in its own right. Pure creativity, though? How does one use pure “creativity” to cut a rock better?

Tim: Ah, and now we’re getting into mild spoiler-y territory. But I’ll forge ahead anyways. So for most people, they participate in the natural order. So for instance, one skill that Native Americans have that white folks don’t is the ability to run great distances through the forest because they are so in tune with the natural order that the earth makes space for them and gives them energy. Brush literally parts and then comes back as if no one had been there. But then the people who understand the world on an even deeper level – these people are few and far between, and they are able to re-make the natural order, build new creations, and not because they bend something to their will, but because they “teach” the thing the way that’s best for it to be. It’s a little hard to explain, but it’s basically two sides of the same coin. The rock is cut and even dressed as a millstone (i.e. the bottom is sharpened in a pattern for grinding well) when it comes free of the quarry because the cutter has shown the rock how it ought to be.

Debby: Hmm… I’m a little skeptical. But I’m still interested in this particular perspective. I’ll take those books on loan whenever you’re ready to part with them, Tim.

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