Orphan of Creation
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Published in 1988 by Baen Books as an original paperback, this is the third novel Allen wrote, following The Torch of Honor and Rogue Powers, which I previously reviewed in their revised and combined form as Allies and Aliens. Quite a bit different in both subject matter and style, still I would have to say this novel is as good, and in some ways better, than its predecessors. Unlike those first two, which are pure space opera, this one is set in contemporary times, and the scientific basis of its plot revolves around anthropology and archaeology, along with psychology, sociology, and history. As a paperback original it was nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award.
The story begins on a Thanksgiving afternoon in Gowrie, Mississippi, at the home of Josephine Jones, where generations of her family have gathered for the traditional feast. Among the guests is Dr. Barbara Marchando, her great-niece, an anthropologist who works for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. Always a bit of a loner, Barbara wanders away from the others after the meal, leaving the other adults to their games of bridge and checkers, and the children to their much louder and rambunctious games in the yard and through the great wrap-around porches that skirt the family homestead, a former cotton plantation. She retreats to one of her favorite spots, the attic, amongst the stored treasures no one else seems to care for.
One item there that has intrigued her since childhood is an enormous oak and brass steamer trunk, the property of her great-great-grandfather, Zebulon Jones, a former slave who escaped to the north in 1850. This day curiousity gets the better of her though, and using an old fireplace poker, she is able to break the hasp and raise the lid which has kept the secrets inside for so many years. In addition to some clothing and a straw hat carefully stored in a box, she also discovers several books which were obviously her ancestor's favorites, including the Narrative of Sojourner Truth and Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. Another, a thin, leather-bound volume with no title on the cover or spine, proves to be the greatest treasure of all. Several pages into the plain book, Barbara's eyes light up when she reads this hand-written inscription:
A JOURNAL, DIARY, AND MEMORY BOOK
of Current Occasions
Zebulon was a legend, not only to his descendants, but also to many others around Gowrie. The town had been named for the owner of the plantation the Jones family now called home. After escaping slavery, the young Zebulon Jones had found employment as a stable boy in upstate New York, taught himself to read, and endeavored to learn as much of raising horses as possible. Denied the right to join the Union Army, he instead made a small fortune supplying horses and equipment to them, and after the war he returned to Mississippi and surprised everyone by buying the plantation where he had once been a slave. Among his other accomplishments was a term in Congress before white men stole back the vote from supposedly enfranchised blacks.
To have found his journal excites Barbara more than any discovery she has made in her professional career. But little does she know that in reading it she will be propelled into a journey far beyond anything she could have ever imagined. Even though written when he was in his mid-60s, much of his journal contains recollections of experiences throughout his life, including his days as a slave. As she is reading the journal while in bed that night, one particular passage jumps out at her as quite unusual, causing her to sit bolt upright, as she rereads it carefully.
"One of the strangest episodes in my life as a Slave began in what I now suppose to be the summer of
1850....It was at that time that certain strangely formed Creatures appeared on the Gowrie plantation,
supposedly to serve as a new breed of slave....These Creatures were a stratagem to get 'round the
slavery importation law. Since these Creatures were patently not Human beings, therefore, in a lawyer's
logic, they were not Slaves, and therefore they were legal to import....It would be impossible to forget the
day Colonel Gowrie brought home his new charges. Stranger creatures I have not seen before or since."
Reading very carefully over the following paragraphs leads Barbara to come to an incredible conclusion. Colonel Gowrie had attempted to import and train gorillas or some other ape species as slave laborers. Zebulon's account reported on the creatures wild behavior, their inability to learn the simplest tasks, and also their susceptibility to disease. Many died shortly after their arrival on the plantation, and when instructed to bury the remains, the Negro slaves refused to allow the creatures' bodies to be placed near the graves of their own family and friends. Instead, they insisted on stopping short of the crossroads, opposite the trail which led to the entrance to the slave cemetery. They made short work of the job, little caring if they dug deep enough to protect the bodies from the ravages of wild dogs or other scavengers.
The next day Barbara is able to convince her aunt to allow her to dig for the evidence of the animals' bodies. At first reluctant, her aunt relents when she realizes she cannot stand the thought of the creatures lying so close to the bodies of her unfortunate ancestors. By this time, most of the other family members have begun their preparations for departure, but Barbara is able to convince one of her cousins, college-aged Livingstone Jones, to stay and help her with the dig. Unused to the methodical approach of archaeology, he thinks it will be just a simple task of shoveling a bit of dirt, but soon learns how much is involved in documenting the procedure. He is a willing student, though, and with the aid of some hastily purchased equipment - twine and stakes to mark off meter-square grids, a metal detector to hopefully pinpoint nails in the crates the creatures were buried in - they begin the task of locating first of all where to dig, then in carefully removing a layer of dirt and rechecking the hits made by the detector.
In this way, by the second afternoon, the Saturday after Thanksgiving, they reach a level which yields their first find. They uncover a wooden crate, portions of which are deteriorated enough to reveal the contents within, something wrapped inside a burlap sack. As Barbara cuts a portion of the sack away, what is revealed both amazes and discourages her. The first bones she sees are of an arm, and she recognizes them as human, not those of a gorilla for sure. She wonders how she could have misread the journal. Were they digging in the wrong place? How could Zebulon have mistaken these bodies as being animals? Still, she is enough of a professional to continue the procedure in uncovering the rest of the body, in order to put some finality on the ordeal. It is when the skull is revealed that she begins to wonder if it is all just a dream or hallucination.
I won't reveal much more of the plot here, but it won't be difficult for you to figure out her discovery just by the few clues I've given, or by looking at the cover art of the current paperback edition. I believe this to be a well-researched and believable book. I do have some knowledge of the techniques of archaeology (my ex-wife is one of its practitioners) and can state that Allen's descriptions, not only of the dig itself, but also of the type of people who do such work, is convincingly accurate. He states in an afterword that he believes there is nothing in the current knowledge of evolution that would rule out the scenario he has presented. I'm not so sure of that myself, but if looked at in an alternate history sort of way, then it is easy to suspend your disbelief. The only negative is the speed at which the investigation proceeds, especially how quickly their eventual quarry is discovered in Africa. But this is a novel, not reportage of an actual anthropological discovery, so Allen can be forgiven the way he has streamlined the story.
The best thing about this book is the characterizations, along with the profound thoughts concerning the definition of humanity Allen is able to weave into the plot. I don't think it was accidental at all that he made the main character an African-American. Barbara is a well-drawn character, an extremely intelligent woman, torn between the profession that means so much to her and the impending failure of her marriage. Her cousin, Livingstone, is also an interesting individual, and his actions point out the fact that Barbara is certainly not the only one of the family to have inherited Zebulon's intelligence and lust for living. By the end of the novel, it is easy to assume that he has discovered his professional goal in life as well.
The Baen Books edition has been out of print for several years, but Allen has it available on Print-On-Demand through his own publishing company, FoxAcre Press, and it can be ordered directly from him or through amazon.com in paperback or Kindle edition. Considering that there are several other Allen novels out of print, and that this is the only one of them that he has so far offered himself, it should tell you how he feels about its merits. If you have the available funds, and would like to show your support to the writer, then order from him since it is offered at just slightly more than amazon. However, due to the relatively high price on this trade-paperback, if you would like to find it at a more reasonable price, either check out the used copies available from amazon's "Marketplace Sellers," or else take this link to what I have found to be a very good source - BookFinder.Com. If you are into eBay then that would be a place to search as well.
In conclusion, this is a book I would recommend if you enjoy intelligent speculation, thoughtful characters, and situations that will make you think twice about what you know about humanity, its past, and its possible futures. One thing that would have been very interesting to see would be the full version of Zebulon Jones' journal. Aside from the revelation of the anthropological secret, the other passages quoted reflect the thoughts of a man who has experienced much pain and sorrow in his life, but also much joy in the blessings he has reaped due to his own hard work and his dedication to ethics and morals.
"If my life has not been Faultless, neither has it been so Blameful that a just and merciful
God should deny me entrance to his kingdom. After lifelong battles with His enemies the
Slavemaster, the Lynch Mob, the Klansmen, and all the other agents of Hate I am at peace
with God...It only remains for me to recount, as best I can, the events of my life, not as a Monument
to myself, but as an instruction to those not yet born as to what it is possible for one Man to do."
Allen's Official Homepage
My author profile of Allen
My review of Allies and Aliens
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