The Tales of Alvin Maker
I was just doing some personal branding work, and my forum and facebook pseudonym was my starting point for this slow, very part-time process last summer. I was reflecting on where that name came from, and thought I’d share the inspiration as it was technically what eventually led me to discovering the Maker Movement and Maker Spaces a couple of years later.
The second book I ever read, which, much like the first one, Tolkien’s The Hobbit, was WAY above my reading level in Grade 4, and so took months to read, was Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game - recently made into what was a surprisingly good movie, I assumed that hollywood would butcher it.
I found a copy of the 4th book in Card’s Series The Tales of Alvin Maker on a friend’s book shelf while house sitting around 3-4 years ago. I picked up as something to look at while I had a snack, and couldn’t put it down. I gobbled up the whole series as I was able to find copies within a few months.
The series follows young Alvin Maker through his life in an alternate history of frontier America. In the culture of this frontier, everybody is said to have a knack, that skill that they are gifted with at birth. I think basically all of the characters in the book have a last name that corresponds with their gift. The inn-keeper is named “Guester”, the Blacksmith is named “Smith”, etc.
There is a bit of a legend about the idea of there being a kind of Meta-knack, and these folks would be called Makers. Alvin one such Maker. He is endowed with the power to essentially be able to see into the structure of things and alter or re-make them into whatever he wants. It is a kind of mystical nano-technology.
I have serious problems with Card as a person, his politics are horrifying, but he is an amazing author. This entire series is written in a kind of frontier american slang, which you almost can’t help reading either out loud or in your head in a southern drawl. Character development is second to none, and there are a lot of them. The narrative perspective is from the stories of the William Blake character “Taleswapper”, who also shows up in the book as a major character many times.
There is a lot of history and historical figures in the book that are slightly altered in name and character to fit the setting and plot. William Blake as Taleswapper, William Henry Harrison as a racist slave-owner and politician, Andrew Jackson as a hotshot lawyer, Napoleon Bonaparte as himself, Marquis de La Fayette, Daniel Webster, John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Honoré de Balzac was one of my favorite characters, John James Audubon, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Tecumseh (as Ta Kumsaw), Tensquatawa (as Lolla-Wossiky/Tenskwa Tawa). Slavery and a movement to free slaves plays an important role, the role of European empires over the colonies, the beginning of the railways, conflicts with Native culture, and many other historical events are a part of the plot.
The main arc of the story is that Alvin finds himself on a mission to build a Crystal City, which he sees in a vision given him by Tensquatawa. He learns that he cannot build it by himself, feels his vast powers are inadequate, and nobody can do what he does. So he tried various schemes to train makers, and in the end this is how he accomplishes the feat. The main moral of the story is that we are all makers or at least have such a capacity, and we can build a more beautiful world if we embrace this. Which I find very relevant to the maker movement. When I taught school for a single glorious year, cultivation was the recurring theme in everything we did, and unfortunately not by my design, this word cultivation is one we learned early on, and the children were able to relate it to almost everything we learned that year. We discovered that humans are on this earth to cultivate, to take the environment and shape it towards our needs by our passion, and we are the only beings on this planet that do this.
It is also interesting to note, at least in the early books, Card created an America Online group that he used to flesh out characters. Members of the forum helped to create and flesh out characters, and Card took much advice and inspiration from the online group, where everybody played characters in a sort of role-play. A very cool idea.
I can highly recommend the series, of which there are 6 books: Seventh Son, The Red Prophet, Prentice Alvin, Alvin Journeyman, Heart Fire, and The Crystal City. I am just reading Wikipedia ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Tales_of_Alvin_Maker#Alternate_history_characters ) and it says that there is another forthcoming book, which I have not heard of. These were written in the mid 80’s and early 90’s I believe, so I assumed it was a complete series.
If you are looking for a good read, in the sci-fi/fantasy genre, go and find a copy of Seventh Son. Or actually, I think they are packed away, but I do have the full series somewhere. If anybody’s interest is piqued, don’t hesitate to ask, and I’ll see if I can dig it up and lend a copy.