Scribe by Alyson Hagy
“What a stout and foolish mansion is the human heart.” *
The country has been ravaged by a contagious fever that has dramatically reduced the population. Government still exists but does not interfere with the uneasy alliances created in the hollows of Appalachia where a man named Billy Kingery is the eyes, ears, and law.
The mysterious and unnamed main character of Scribe makes a living on her family’s homestead growing food for herself and as payment to Kingery and his bargain men, who in turn let her make paper and ink so that she may write letters for people in exchange for scarce resources.
Folks think she has the power to absolve them of their sins and guilty conscience by writing it all down on the page to either deliver or burn afterward, though she’s quick to say that the words magic and power are nonsense as far as her abilities are concerned.
She comes from a line of healers: her father and sister both studied in medicine and mercy but she claims she didn’t receive that gift, only the ability to write letters for those in need of mercy.
The sudden appearance of a man named Hendricks sets in motion a series of events that will threaten the alliances she has in her community and bring back memories of the past she has tried to forget.
Hendricks has requested a letter, but in this dystopian Appalachian world, our unnamed main character is wary of his motives.
“What he wanted was the hardest thing. He wanted a letter in the declarative style, and he wanted to be with her–at least on the grounds of her property–while she wrote it. Then he wanted what they rarely requested anymore: he wanted her to memorize the letter before the pair of them destroyed it forever. He would cut and stack the wood before she began writing, if that was what she required. And he would camp by the creek, eating his own dried fruit and meat. He wouldn’t impose on her. But he also wanted her to carry the letter to its destination. He wanted her to speak its words aloud in the presence of the person who needed to hear them most. He described the place she would have to go, where the letter would become his painful request for forgiveness. He had a name. It was a crossroads far away.” *
They make an agreement: if Hendricks can deliver the skin of a mountain cat to her, she’ll write and deliver the letter to the crossroads.
Making good on his end of the deal, Hendricks hunts and kills a cat but brings the attention of some local boys to the homestead that leads to a disastrous turn of events.
The main character doesn’t know what she’ll return home to but she must make good on her end of the deal to deliver the letter, following the rules by asking Billy Kingery for passage to the crossroads.
Anything requested from Kingery comes with a high price and he’s already hungry for revenge against the family of our main character (the history of which we learn in the novel). He grants her two days passage …but only once she’s sat down for a questionable meal he’s prepared.
“She had protected herself by bartering the only gift she had, the ability to write letters on behalf of the guilty and possessed. And, still, blood had come. It had spilled itself on her and within her house, flowing and marking, flowing and staining. Blood led to vengeance, and vengeance, as she knew all too well, was impossible to manage.” *
Scribe is a powerful novel drawing on the culture of Appalachia to explain the power of storytelling and create a believable dystopian society plagued by modern day threats of pandemic disease, government crisis, and economic collapse.
At the heart of this story is a woman who will do what she has to in order to keep her word and will discover that her unusual gift is a power that is capable of healing after all.
Lyrically written with inspiration from traditional Southern folklore, Hagy has created a strong cast of characters within a rapid paced tale of power and redemption that burns with a quiet intensity.
Many thanks to Graywolf Press for sending me an ARC for review. Scribe is scheduled for release on October 2, 2018.
*The quotes included are from an advance readers copy and are subject to change upon final publication.