The Orphan by Robert Stallman, © 1980 paperback, Pocket/Timescape Books.
This is the 5th in my series of Forgotten Books
This review is going to sound a little like a rerun of my BLIND VOICES review of a couple of weeks ago. The novel is set in a rural 1930’s America and is written by a writer who passed well before his time. But THE ORPHAN and BLIND VOICES are two very different novels.
Robert Stallman managed three novels before he died – THE ORPHAN, THE CAPTIVE, and THE BEAST. Collectively, they form THE BOOK OF THE BEAST. He was a professor at Western Michigan University when he died just as the first book was published. The third book was still being edited (if I recall correctly) and is a little choppier than the first two. As far as I know, he wrote no short fiction and published just the three books.
So, today we will deal with the first novel, THE ORPHAN. Or, perhaps “The Portrait of a Shape Shifting Alien as a Young Boy” might be a better title, as the reader views The Beast through two viewpoints – his Beast nature and his human side. The Beast, which is how he refers to himself, is a shape shifter from somewhere. We are not told in this book. He is in rural America during the Depression, somewhere in the Midwest, near Ohio, but not there. He never really describes himself and those who view his true nature (and survive) talk about a wild dog or a bear or a force of nature. In this book, he is learning what it is to be human.
He begins his humanity as a five year old by named Robert Lee Burney. He appears to be a normal child who is found hiding naked in a barn by Martin and Cat Nordmeyer, an older, empty nest couple who take the child in. At night, he assumes his natural form and roams the countryside, observing, hunting, and romping. The Beast may be a child himself as he does not speak to himself as a fully grown adult; he is easily distracted and frequently makes wrong decisions. He is fascinated with the life he begins to live. But, this bucolic life is not meant for him and circumstances force him to leave the Nordmeyers and live with their daughter, Victoria Woodson, and her family. Here he is distracted easily and learns about cruelty and love and evil.
Victoria has seen Robert Lee shift into the Beast but refuses to believe it totally. But she watches and waits convinced that there is Devil stuff going on. She brings in a medium that is able to hypnotize the boy who reveals his true nature. Again he is forced to leave.
When he next appears, Robert Lee is gone. He is now a 12 year old boy named Charles Cahill and he is taken in by Mrs. Stumway, a crotchety old soul who lives near where he has appeared. Ostensible she allows him to live in her home in exchange for work he does around her place. She has been rich at some point but hard times have fallen on her. Charles becomes a hero, saving the life of a tormentor he has endangered and finds himself in school for the first time. At 12, he can neither read nor write so he is placed in a one room schoolhouse in the first grade. He proves to be a good and eager learner and advances at will to the 6th grade level. He is learning, not just from books, but about the human condition. He sees the evil and jealousy of those who envy his advancement; he discovers girls and their strange attraction. He has a crush on the school teacher. But again, the Beast conspires within him and breaks free, binging disaster to everyone.
THE ORPHAN was a finalist for the Nebula Award for Best Novel and Stallman was a two time nominee for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. This was a fascinating book when I read it 30 years ago. It remains a great read. I found an old battered paperback the other day in Houston and I devoured it. There were a matched set of hardback books published in the UK in the late 80‘s. I ordered a set of those today. These are great books. Like with BLIND VOICES, we can only wonder at what might have been. Stallman died at 50, and science fiction lost another unique voice.
The cover to this book (and the remaining two in the series) is by Don Maitz and is one of his most enduring images. While there is no physical description of the Beast, you cannot read the book without his image n your mind after you have seen it.
Series organizer Patti Abbott hosts more Friday Forgotten Book reviews at her own blog, and posts a complete list of participating blogs.