Saturday, February 05, 2005

Undrerground Again: Bev Spencer, Guardian of the Dark (Richmond Hill, Canada: Scholastic Ltd., 1993).

This is one of the books that “proves” my rule about the 1980s and 1990s by sticking rigidly to the formula of what I have termed “juveniles” and eschewing the markers of the YA/social issues novel. There is no romance in this book, no “healing” of familial stress, and at the end there is consequence for everyone involved.

Gen lives in a world underground. As far as he knows, this is all. His forefathers once lived in “Sky” which he conceives as another, larger cavern. Outside of Senedu there is only unformed rock.

Gen is also the only son of the Guardian, and as such will be the Guardian next. He has only one friend (Duff) because most boys won’t play with him, and he is kept busy by his father—a very strict and cold patriarch—learning number games that seem to have little use. His female cousin Nirrin is a little older and he regards her as a pest. The other boy we meet is Jered, a bit of a bully, training to be a miner but has been downgraded to farmer when he got into (quite separate) trouble. Gen and Jered dislike each other.

The social structure of Senedu is kept by Truth Time, at which the legends of Wizards and Dragns are recounted, and the expulsion from the Sky, by the Guardian, and by the Council (which also seems to be hereditary).

Gen’s only free activity is sneaking through air tunnels with Duff, and he knows it will come to an end. Both of them are getting too big for the spaces and Gen is about to become co-Guardian.

Then on their possibly last trip they hear a noise, they follow it, and Gen realises that he is hearing the sound of a Dragn (this bit is rather fudged). In a panic they flee with the intention of telling what they have heard. They are intercepted by Jered, who reports them, and incarcerated. Gen tells his father what has happened but his father refuses to listen and begins proceedings in counsel to have them unnamed and cast out. Jered meanwhile has been thinking about what Gen told him, and goes back and helps him to escape. Jered and Gen go looking for the Dragn.

What they find is the Wizard, who explains to them that the Dragn is a missile, the people are descendants of an underground missile establishment who rebelled and refused to fire their weapons. Six hundred years have past, long enough for myths to grow up, but also long enough for a sound, if poverty stricken internal economy.

Acid from above has eaten through the carapace of the missile and triggered the explosion mechanism. Wizard recognises “Gen” as “General” and asks him to use his “number game” to get the missile to stand down. Gen does, but it doesn’t work, the missile is corrupt, the only solution if to fire it. In doing so they will also create a route to the outside world. Gen races off to get his father’s “wand” which is the key to the missile. He returns, having also met Duff and Nirrin who have followed him, and between them they climb the missile and form a human chain to insert the key—then rush and hide. The missile fires.

The children return and all four are declared outcast. Gen uses what he has learned about the old communication mechanism to call to him any who want to move on to the world Wizard (a computer) says is now recovered and ready for them. About seventy leave, and note that they leave prepared, with seeds and tools and determination. (Some back out at the last minute.)

The last two scenes are very impressive. The Guardian refuses to speak with Gen but when he returns to his office what he contemplates is not what we have assumed. The Guardian new that the truth had become mutated after 600 years, but underneath he new there was a way out and that the time would come when the General would use the codes to save the people and take some of them away. His role was to preserve the people who needed the security of Senedu and to create a son who might be “the General”. When his turn came, it was too early, he never found the Dragn. In order to make sure Gen left, with enough people, he had to stick to his guns. There is no familial reconciliation, no last father's blessing.

When Gen and his friends get out into the open air they talk about it in the terms they understand: “The ceiling was blue and so far above Gen’s head that he could not touch it. Yellow light poured from a place too bright to look at.” (167)

At the end we are left with two stories to follow: what happens next in a Senedu from which people have, for the very first time, left with hope? What happens to Gen’s people in a community that have not just left all they knew, but have already decided that the old way of organising—the rigid benevolence of Senedu—is no longer appropriate?

--

Underground stories definitely have an appeal for writers in this market. I've just read a third, by Suzanne Martel (a French Canadian), which I'll talk about tomorrow. It takes a quite different tack from either Spencer or DePrau.



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