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Joe Haldeman

Ace / Penguin Putnam

US Hardcover First

ISBN 0-441-00977-8

Publication Date: 12-03-2002

231 Pages; $22.95

Date Reviewed: 12-07-02  

Reviewed by Rick Kleffel © 2002



General Fiction, Science Fiction, Horror


A strong speaking voice can carry a reader through a book without regard for subject, setting or intent. If a skilled writer creates a character's voice with the right swing and sweep, the reader will be happy to simply sit around the campfire and listen to the tale told. Joe Haldeman is an award-winning science fiction writer, and probably not the first person one would associate with the voice of a rather meek woman from the antebellum South. In 'Guardian', he creates the world of Rosa Coleman with such powerful authority that the reader's world literally disappears, only to be replaced by that of Rosa. Readers will be riveted to their chair as Rosa tells her story in careful, quiet tones. Haldeman's historical novel slips in under the reader's radar and puts the reader in Rosa's place. It's a powerful performance that makes the reader feel as if Haldeman might write about anything, anyone, any time. 'Guardian' is a novel more properly filed under historical fiction or magic realism than science fiction. Whatever you might want to call it, in the end it is simply Rosa's story, and that's more than enough.

The novel is set within a simple framing device. Blake Coleman is publishing the memoirs of his G-ma. Born in Georgia in 1858, Rosa Coleman escapes the South and the violence of the Civil war to attend Wellesley College, where she acquires enough of a degree to teach. Moving to Philadelphia, she marries early to a man who proves to more than cruel. In 1894, when she discovers him hurting their child, Daniel, she takes the child and embarks on a journey that takes them to Skagway, Alaska, and perhaps much further.

Once it's past the introductories, the novel's measured tone captures the readers and carries them on Rosa's journey. Haldeman nails the voice and the scenes unfold like a series of beautifully detailed sepia-tone photographs found flaking in a long-shelved album. As Rosa first makes a decision to leave, she finds herself confronted a by a raven that seems to talk to her. The moment is perfectly magical. On her their journey, Daniel and Rosa meet up with Doc and Chuck Coleman, two travelers also headed to gold-rush era Alaska. From the smallest details, from the most perfect batch of research this side of the Rockies, Haldeman re-creates a time in America totally disconnected from the present.

Haldeman's choice of details is -- with one exception -- perfect. When Rosa discovers her husband abusing their child, Haldeman reveals a bit more than many readers will want to know. Once you're beyond that point, and it's early in the narrative, Haldeman's characterizations and recreations are faultless. But Rosa has more in store for her than a mere journey to Alaska. As Haldeman unfolds his story, the raven returns and Rosa starts teaching in the Tlingit Indian school in Sitka. She encounters an almost alien mythology. It frankly matters little what Rosa's doing; reading the prose that Haldeman writes for her is a joy. Even as the story turns into the arena of magic realism, Haldeman keeps the Rosa we love in tact.

Haldeman has the potential to reach an audience much wider than the usual SF readers in 'Guardian'. He's written a simple tale in a simple voice that touches the reader with the immediacy of truth. His finish is witty, inventive and imaginative. He whips together genres like a French chef whips together the simplest ingredients, creating a result that simple, elegant and powerful. 'Guardian' is a delight, and Rosa a most memorable character.