Alyson Hagy’s slim 2018 literary novella Scribe mines Appalachian folktales for a bleak, harrowing and poetic story about loss, guilt, love and honor. By deliberately setting the story in a world outside of our time and space, Hagy forces attention onto the characters, which at times gives the book the feel of a stage-play more than a story or a poem.
In spite of an otherworldly setting, this novel isn’t speculative fiction. Hagy isn’t raising questions about how people live in a world like this one. She’s exploring the effects of isolation, guilt and trauma against a folkloric setting, and asking, “In a terrible situation, how do we find the good in each other?”
In order to help set expectations, I will engage in a mild spoiler. In this world, there has been an historic civil war. There have, it seems, been several wars. There have been migrations, and various deadly disease epidemics, one of them recent by the book’s timeline. You are not going to learn any more than that about any of those things, because the story is written basically as a literary fable.
In a harsh, bleak environment, where humans are vulnerable in many ways, society has devolved to the basics, at least in this particular place. The eponymous scribe, an unnamed woman who can read and write, who taught herself how to make paper and ink, lives in a hollow where life is basically controlled by a strongman ruler who uses physical coercion, terror, and magic to control the population, mostly through the metaphor of “bargains,” although he changes those bargains with no warning when it suits him.
For unknown reasons, the strongman and the scribe have a kind of truce, and she has been allowed to keep her land. She has even allowed a group of refugees called the Uninvited to camp on her land, without any interference from the bossman. She exists in a needle’s-point equipoise until the story opens.
A man calling himself Hendricks arrives, wanting her to write a letter for him. Hendricks has a bigger request, though. He wants her to deliver the letter and recite it to a person. The scribe no longer travels and at first she refuses. Hendricks offers to pay for her services in firewood and cured tobacco (riches indeed), but even that’s not enough at first. The scribe gives him a task, as a test, and he completes it. Reluctantly, she agrees to write the letter, which seems to be a confession of Hendricks’s numerous crimes.
Even with Hendricks, who brings an element of danger early on, the first part of Scribe unfolds at a slow pace. We learn that the Uninvited revere the spirit of the scribe’s dead sister, who they saw as a healer when she tried to ease the suffering of their dying children. We learn that the scribe has a challenging relationship with her (dead) sister. Things go wrong, though, and soon she and Hendricks are facing two mobs — the Uninvited and the bully boys of the bossman. Hendricks, wounded, can’t leave the house. Against her own judgment, the scribe sets out to deliver his letter, because she said she would.
The scribe faces insurmountable obstacles on her way to a crossroads, where she must deliver the letter. Along the way, we learn much more about her past, and what happened between her and her sister. Will the scribe be able to deliver the letter before death overtakes her? And just to whom will she deliver it, in this world when most people are dead?
The book is peopled with folkloric characters: mystical elders, a canny, mute hill-boy, another magical boy who carries a trumpet, an evil boss whose jovial façade makes him more terrifying, a healer, a prophet and a man in need of redemption. Except for the scribe and Hendricks, Hagy keeps the characters at the level of their archetypes. That the story comes together at a literal crossroads will be no surprise.
Most of the time, I liked Hagy’s intense, dreamlike prose. There were places, line by line, where I thought she tried too hard to be poetic and the strain showed, like “…she drove her eyes into the darkness.” The book veers in and out of hill-talk, helping by tone to set a sense of place that weaves smoothly into the story.
The damaged scribe tries to hide her wounds under a tough veneer, but goodness glimmers through now and then, and quite early in Scribe I understood that the hard shell was a necessary survival tool. She is not a likeable character, but she grew on me.
There were disappointments, and one of them is the ending. It’s dramatically correct, and very poetical, and I wish writers would find their way out of this ending just one time. I feel like I’m hearing a song from Hamilton, kvetching about “who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” Basically, a man is redeemed by the actions of a woman. There are places where the status quo needs shaking up, not shoring up, and this book, elegantly and sparely, shores it right back up. Damn it.
I had to think about this book for a while after I finished it, because it is flawed, but my final judgment is that it is a flawed success. If you like literary works and you’re looking for something different, check out Scribe. It has a lot to recommend it.
I had much more trouble with this fantasy than you, Marion. It was intriguing up to the point where the “bossman” made the “scribe” drink the poisonous elixir, but from there to the end it made just about no sense. If he wanted to have her throat cut and her body put in a shallow grave, nothing was preventing him from having that done without all the subterfuge involving Hendricks. And as you say, the theme of the bad man redeemed by the love of a woman (which was the main target of Sherri Tepper’s heavy artillery in The Gate to Women’s Country) is not a worthy one to hang all the poetic language and attempts at symbolism onto. The beginning sections of the story seemed to promise something more complex than that.