A Dystopian America Where a Woman Who Can Read and Write Wields Special Power

By Alyson Hagy
157 pp. Graywolf Press. Paper, $16.

American literature needs modernization, pronto. We need female lead characters and female voices, not only to rectify the male skew created by centuries of gender inequality, but also because women make supreme heroes, and it is high time we recognize that fact. In “Scribe,” a slim and dense novel about an American dystopia, Alyson Hagy gives us both.

Stories have always had the power to shape and transform our world. But Hagy understands that, in order for this to happen, stories must be relevant to and reflective of their times. In oral storytelling traditions, including the Appalachian Jack tales Hagy evokes here, story is understood not as a museum specimen but as a living, growing organism, constantly cultivated to serve both the cultural needs and the idiom of the moment. In nonliterate societies, minstrels occupy a place of power, both as guards of the people’s history and remodelers of the myths they tell. The protagonist of “Scribe” is a refreshing version of this ancient archetype, largely because she is a she. The sole unnamed character in the novel (a fact that emphasizes her mythic status and role as an “Everywoman”), she survives in a future post-civil-war society in the wilds of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, eking out an existence however she can.

And what she can do is read and write, skills lost by the rest of the war- and disease-ravaged population. These huddled masses, “the Uninvited,” live like “grizzled human weeds” in the hills around her, reduced to a Neanderthal-level existence, trapped in violent feuds under the prevailing law of “take or be taken.” They come to her when they need letters, and she writes them, especially “on behalf of the guilty and possessed,” as trade for essentials: firewood, tobacco, sometimes sex. The novel ignites when a mysterious man named Hendricks seeks her services. Her martyred sister’s ghost appears, time starts behaving strangely and all these lives entangle. Around them, the Uninvited’s feud escalates, building to a conflict orchestrated by a nefarious merchant ruler named Billy Kingery, who holds a vicious vendetta against the protagonist.

The violated female body is a running theme; the protagonist reveals past traumas to Hendricks, and her wounds accentuate the healing power of the missives she writes. A central pun: The chapters are named for the elements of a letter, the longest being “Body.” As it becomes clear that the scribe’s work serves not only as communication but as medicine for the terrorized people, word becomes flesh and vice versa.

As befits this allegory, the prose is sensuous. This is a novel written in dreamily violent language: “He paused just long enough to show her the sleek, fat maggot of his tongue.” The violence is not solely stylistic; entering Hagy’s brutalized America, the reader must be prepared for a society where life has no value.

Hagy goes to great lengths to decontextualize her narrative and de-linearize time, both to underscore the perennial aspects of human nature and to create a mythlike atmosphere for her patchwork of retold tales and war lore. Unfortunately, these methods can amplify reader disorientation. In better moments, the blurred landscape and timescape allow the language to become as lulling as an incantation.

“Scribe,” which begins with the baying of hounds and ends with silence, reminds us on every page that humans remain the storytelling animal, and that therein might lie our salvation. But the book’s momentum derives from the relationship between the protagonist and Hendricks. Camped out and under siege, they are buoyed above the blood and filth of a war-torn America by a force even more powerful than story: love. Will our hero save her beloved and everyone else? In this brave new world, a woman with a pen may prove mightier than a man with a sword.

Lydia Peelle teaches in the Mountainview low-residency M.F.A. program at Southern New Hampshire University. She is the author, most recently, of the novel “The Midnight Cool.”

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