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Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction September 1992

By Orson Scott Card

The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter, Sharyn McCrumb (Scribner's, cloth, 306 pp, $19.00); If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O (Ballantine, paper, 263 pp, $4.99)

Sharyn McCrumb proved her awareness of science fiction -- or at least its social aspects -- with her Edgar-winning first novel, Bimbos of the Death Sun. But with The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter she moves into the company of contemporary fantasy and immediately proves that she belongs in the front rank, with Lindholm, de Lint, and McCammon -- with a jaunty salute to the late Manly Wade Wellman

This novel is not marketed as fantasy, however, so it will be easy to overlook. Because McCrumb's readers expect to find her in the mystery category, that's where this book has been placed. And it's not a bad decision, considering that it is set in the eastern Tennessee mountain town of Hamelin that was the setting of her fine mystery novel If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O.

There is no genre confusion about Peggy-O. There's not a speck of fantasy in it, as Sheriff Spencer Arrowood, a lonely hometown boy, tries to find out who is making death threats against the faded 60s folksinger Peggy Muryan, who has just moved to Hamelin. But Peggy-O also established that McCrumb is at least as interested in character and current moral issues as she is in mystery -- perhaps more. For Peggy-O is also a novel about the reverberations of the Vietnam War in the consciences and memories of those who survived that era. Spencer Arrowood lost a resented older brother there, and is sure his mother wishes it had been football hero Cal who lived to adulthood. Arrowood's deputy, LeDonne, is a vet with flashbacks to the war, as is one of the prime suspects; many others have been touched by the war, since this was a part of the country where college deferments weren't exactly thick on the ground, and people felt it was their duty to serve.

Peggy Muryan herself is nursing an old guilt -- when the record company noticed her folk-singing duo, they wanted only her, and for the sake of fame and fortune she dropped her partner and one-time fiancé, Travis Perdue. Travis ended up in Air Force intelligence in Vietnam, writing ever-more-bitter letters to her until he turned up missing in action. Now the threats she's getting point to Travis as her would-be murderer.

The odd thing is that nobody actually solves the mystery, though everything becomes absolutely clear by the end. Finding out the identity of the perpetrator is simply not the central issue in Peggy-O. Nor is it all that important in The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter, where the truth about the grisly family murder-suicide at the beginning of the novel is known to two of the main character all along, and they simply don't tell anybody until the end. It is a token of McCrumb's amazing talent that she uses one of these people as a viewpoint character and yet it is not cheating when that viewpoint does not give us the truth until after a crisis is at the end.

Has McCrumb simply discovered a new formula? If so, I love it; let's jot it down, fellow writers, and learn from it.

In both books, there is a contemporary issue that is affecting the lives of many of the people in Hamelin -- in Peggy-O, the issue is Vietnam; in Hangman's, industrial pollution.

In both books, the main character is dealing with a crisis of identity and relationship which is resolved by the end of the book, though in a surprising way -- in Peggy-O, the transformed character is Arrowood; in Hangman's, a minister's wife who is forced to fill in for some of her husband's duties as he is away serving with the military in the Gulf War.

In both books, we are immersed in the society of a small Appalachian town, seeing the rest of American through that lens.

In both books, there are many major characters whose attitudes and actions influence the events of the story, so that you can't remove any of them without damaging the whole fabric.

However, I don't think what I've been describing is a formula. I think what I've described is rich, masterful storytelling -- easily accessible to any reader, with no needless furbelows for the sake of "art"; as thick and ripe and sharp as perfect fruit.

Best of all, with Hangman's Beautiful Daughter, McCrumb shows that nothing is lost and much is gained when the realistic town of Hamelin is given a vein of magic in the form of Nora Bonesteel, an old woman in a mountain cabin who somehow knows when bad things are going to happen to the people of the county. She knew, for instance, that the Underhill family was going to suffer a terrible disaster; she sewed a quilt for them with six coffins, and felt a need to put four of them in a graveyard. Sure enough, the parents and the youngest boy were brutally murdered, seemingly by the oldest son, Josh, who then proceeded to blow his own brains out. The two surviving children, Maggie and Mark, were away at a play practice at the high school, and one of them will also die before the story ends.

For all of Nora's foreknowledge, she freely admits that she never has been told a thing that she wanted to know; and yet not all the things she knows are bad. Laura Bruce, the minister's wife, comes to see her not only a harbinger of bad news, but also a teacher of hope, and the magic provides a sense of purpose in a world in which terrible things can happen. With the flood that rages at the end of the book and the war providing a steady undercurrent throughout it, the world of nature and the world of humanity both do their worst, and yet the strong survive and the good remain a blessing in the lives of others.

McCrumb has not left genre behind with this book, but rather has gathered many genres together to use the gifts that each provides. Mystery gives her the power to bring a new explanation into the end of the book that revises our understanding of all that went before; fantasy provides a sense of purpose and meaning; and her powerful use of the techniques of the character novel makes us love these people as they struggle upward, if not toward the light, then toward dry land. This is a novel of hunger, love, and death, and that includes all genres, all myths, all styles, all publics.

I read these books out of order, by the way, Hangman's before Peggy-O. I lost nothing in the process -- each book is completely self-contained. More important, each book is the kind of tale that demands that you immediately share it with everyone that you care about. Now I've told you about it, and if you read it, we'll both have within us the true, bright memories McCrumb has made for us.

City of Truth, James Morrow (St. Martin's, cloth, 104 pp, $14.95)

Morrow is a satirist, and a good one. His vision is piercing, and he shows us his view of the world through a cold, hard lens. The only softness comes from laughter, and the only laughter comes from the pain of self-recognition. However, until this book I thought of Morrow much the way I think of David Letterman, as one who is willing to ridicule anything and everything except himself. Oh, yes, both Letterman and Morrow seem to lay themselves on the artificial construct. They never expose what they care about, and therefore all that is vulnerable about them remains hidden away and untouched.

A few times, Letterman has shown his real, breakable self -- but always by accident. With City of Truth, I think Morrow has done it on purpose. And it is at once the downfall and the salvation of this book.

To start with, though, you must understand that City of Truth is first-rate, funny satire from beginning to end. The premise is that our society, fed up with deception, has voluntarily submitted to a program of conditioning that makes it impossible for us to tell lies. Not even little white lies. Not even advertising hype. Thus you buy ice cream from the No Great Shakes company, one of the morning TV shows is Enduring Another Day, the Assistant Secretary of Imperialism is one of the our government officials, the police are called the "brutality squad," a recorded message from the phone company says, "The number you have reached is out of service. Probably an unpaid bill. We're pretty quick to disconnect in such cases," and people send each other birthday cards that say things like "Roses drop dead, / Violets do too, / with each day life gets shorter, / Happy birthday to you."

If you don't think that's funny, then I hope I'm never stuck sitting next to you at dinner.

Funny . . . but also superior. Sneering. Distant. The rhetorical stance of one who is above it all. Fun for a couple of hours, but not a vision that you can actually live with.

Which is fine. Morrow tends to write short works, and they are always fun or at least intelligent most of the way through; who could ask for anything more?

Apparently, Morrow can. Because in this book he also seems to be laying himself on the table before us, just for a moment, just a few glimpses, but he is there. Not above it all. Not untouchable.

It isn't the fact that his hero is coping with the coming death of his beloved son from a fatal disease. Morrow has always worked with visceral tools -- he knows that satire is worthless if it does not pull at our vitals.

The difference here is that Morrow lets us see that the story also pulls at his vitals. He actually lets us see what he believes. He actually leaves himself in the position of letting us see that he wants this story to move us.

Oh, he apologizes for it a bit, here and there. For instance, he can't quite deal with the fact that he has written a tear-jerker scene, and so he has his narrator cutely say that he "did the tear thing" instead of just saying that he cried (or, as those who are more practiced in the art of sentiment would have known, never have him speak directly of crying at all). And in the moments of genuine emotion, the writing is not as clever as Morrow's writing usually is. He is even a bit clumsy here and there. But it doesn't feel like artifice. It feels as though he means it. And so, for the first time in reading a satirical work by Morrow, I don't feel dirty at the end of it, as though I had just betrayed my friends by laughing when some clever snob made fun at them. Instead I feel oddly cleansed.

So if you're one of those who has never felt a moment's discomfort reading Morrow, then this book might disappoint you, because the loftiness is not unrelenting and the nastiness is not pure. But for those of you who, after all the pulling of rugs out from under our pretensions, would like your satirist then to show you where he thinks it's safe to stand, City of Truth will do rather well. You will begin the book by reading passages aloud; you will end it, I think, in quiet communion with another soul. Not a bad course for a story to follow.

Jennifer Murdley's Toad, Bruce Coville, ill. Garry A. Lippincott (HB, cloth, 156pp, $16.95)

OK, Jennifer Murdley's Toad starts the way teen novels are supposed to start. misfit girl is teased by other kids because she's beyond plain, she's seriously ugly. You know her parents love her, because when her father came in and found her crying because another TV ad was selling "beautiful" dolls and "beautiful" girls, he broke the screen. Yet his very anger was also a confirmation that she is as ugly as she feared.

Ugly, but tough. And when she pops into a not-very-surprising-magic shop, she feels an immediate kinship with -- and loathing for -- the uglier animals confined in cages there.

The magic shopkeeper gives her a toad for an absurdly low price, because she is "supposed" to have it. When she gets out of the store, it turns out to be a talking toad. But not a prince in disguise. He has been a toad all along and is perfectly content with it, provided that she offers him reasonable accommodations.

It is now, past the magic shop, past the few words of the talking toad, that Coville begins to take us into wonderful new places. The toad not only talks, you see, but is also a superb mimic. Which means that when Jennifer Murdley's worst enemy, Sara, manages to annoy him, he wreaks his vengeance by imitating the sound of the principal speaking over the loudspeaker in class, calling Sara to the office because she is in serious trouble. Ah, the delicious humiliation.

That's just the beginning. There is a rather unexpected effect when you kiss this toad, or it kisses you; the saga of his, er, birth is both familiar and wonderfully fresh; and the whole thing wraps up in a wonderful contest between a very bad woman and a very bufine Jennifer Murdley.

How good is this young adult fantasy? Let's just say that is passed the Emily Test with flying colors. Emily is my 11-year-old, and she not only read it without stopping, but also burst out laughing and had to tell us about funny bits not once but many times. And when it was done, she said, "Dad, it's a great book."

It's good news that even though the story definitely ends, it also leaves room for more Jennifer Murdley stories in the future. And in the meantime, folks, you gotta get a load of this toad.

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