I bought this novel many year ago, not knowing who Orson Scott Scott was, nor having read his excellent Ender’s Game. I found The Folk of the Fringe in a bargain bucket at my newsagents, and purchased it because I was in the mood for an end-of-the-world story. The cover illustration showed a band of scruffy travellers walking along a path towards a ruined city – right up my street. Expecting a decent read, little did I know that this would turn out to be an absolute gem of a book. And, having re-read the book recently, I enjoyed it even more the second time round.
This is a collection of five tales – technicially two novellas and three stories. They take place in a slightly future America in the aftermath of a limited nuclear strike. Limited is the important word, because there are still survivors. They fall into two categories: those who wish to rebuild civilization and those who wish to fill their own pockets. I won’t give you synopses of the stories, but I will say that they are all about the theme of belonging – about the bonds we form with other people and about what we suffer without those bonds. Jamie Teague, the protagonist from the first story, is a loner who makes a living by travelling all across the country and scavenging for items to trade. Everything changes for him when he encounters a group of naive travelling Mormons; he decides to help them before some mobbers arrive and help themselves. Deaver, the protagonist of the second story, is a non-Mormon coping with live in a society of Mormons. Carpenter is a man who feels like an outsider, not because of personal choice or location, but because he has cerebral palsy. These are stories about people who live on the “fringe,” whether literally or figuratively.
These stories are only loosely termed science fiction. They are strongly character-driven tales. In fact, they contain some of the richest depictions of characters I have ever read. The author himself is a Mormon and he mentions his religion a lot. This might be off-putting to the potential reader, but you should persevere. It’s clear the author is not out looking for converts, and the characters in the stories are made all the richer because Card is drawing from his own understanding of life. As a Christian, I related to the mind-set of many of the characters.
I can see how people might dislike this book – an athiest who likes ideas-driven fiction, for instance. For me, The Folk of the Fringe is the strangest, most beautiful, collection of post-apocalyptic stories I’m ever likely to find. They are full of heart.