Sunday, April 5, 2009

Mormonism and a Magical America: a Review of Orson Scott Card's Red Prophet

On 7 November 1811, on a hill near the Wabash and Tippecanoe rivers, Native American forces under the Shawnee prophet Tenskwatawa attacked American forces under William Henry Harrison. In the aftermath of the attack, which later became known as the Battle of Tippecanoe, 30 to 50 of Tenskwatawa's warriors lay dead on the field, and William Henry Harrison became an American hero.

Tippecanoe, however, plays out differently in Orson Scott Card's Red Prophet, a fantasy novel set in a "magical America that might have been." In Red Prophet, the battle is an outright massacre, and Card's telling of it owes as much to the Book of Mormon as it does to any American history book. Readers who are familiar with Alma 24, for example, will readily recognize Card's inspiration for the the group of pacifist Shawnee, led by the Prophet, who allow themselves to be massacred rather than take up arms against their attackers. Other Mormonism-inspired elements surface in the novel; most obviously, the life of Alvin Maker, the story's main character, seems at times inspired by the life of Joseph Smith, while the characters Tenska-Tawa and Taleswapper seem loosely based on the Angel Moroni.

In less creative hands, these Mormon elements might come off as either heavy-handed or corny--like an Osmond Brothers' concept album or a lame Halestorm comedy. Card, however, knows where and how much to borrow from Mormonism. So, while Mormon readers will understand certain aspects of Red Prophet differently than non-Mormon readers, non-Mormon readers will not likely feel like they're missing out on something crucial. Nor will they feel like they're being fed Mormon doctrine subliminally.

One downside of Red Prophet (for me, at least) is that it's the second volume of Card's "Tales of Alvin Maker" series, which means it's not a stand-alone novel. So, the first third of the novel is basically a retelling of Seventh Son, the first volume of the series, while the last third of the novel reads like a prelude for the third volume. What is more, the novel is dialogue heavy (in the bad sense), which is true of all of Orson Scott Card's novels. Still, Red Prophet has a great story to tell. Card's characters--both likable and detestable--are interesting, as are his descriptions of the Tippecanoe massacre and Alvin's spiritual experiences. Overall, I'd recommend the novel--and its predessesor, Seventh Son--to any fan of fantasy or historical fiction.