by Nick DiChario

Robert J. Sawyer Books



A Small and Remarkable Life
Cover by Karen Thomas Petherick

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Nick DiChario's debut novel A Small and Remarkable Life is certainly not a typical science fiction novel or first contact novel.  This statement is to be expected by anyone who has read DiChario's numerous short stories since his debut with "The Winterberry" in 1992.  The fact that it has taken him 14 years to publish his first novel is a loss to the field, but A Small and Remarkable Life is well worth the wait.

DiChario tells the story of Preacher Jacob Piersol and the foreigner Tink Puddah in upstate New York in the 1850s and 60s. Beginning with Puddah's funeral, the main focus of the story appears to be on Piersol, who sees the funeral of the heathen as a way of demonstrating his own humanity and demonstrating that he is as good a preacher as his father.  Almost immediately, the funeral is taken away from him by the townspeople, who all knew Puddah much better than Piersol ever did.

Told in a series of alternating flashbacks into Puddah's life and chapters following Piersol after the funeral, DiChario looks at the two men's lives.  Puddah's short life is marked by death: his parents, his foster father, and others, as well as his own growth as a person as he elects not to try to fit in to society even as people make a place for him.  Piersol continues to try to demonstrate his own greatness to his community, and, later, to the larger city of Palmyra.  Along the way, revelations into the two men's relationship is shown.

DiChario's story is highly reminiscent of the Alvin Maker novels by Orson Scott Card and Karen Joy Fowler's Sarah Canary.  In those works, set in a frontier society, the primary focus is on a foreigner, the alien, making their way in a land in which society is a complex arrangement of tight-knight communal bonds and fear of the outsider.  At the same time, there is a liberal dose of Robert A. Heinlein's  Valentine Michael Smith in the character of Tink Puddah, as the alien can draw on internal resources unknown to the humans who surround him.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the relationship between Puddah and Piersol is the fact that the atheist Puddah shows more concern and charity to those around him than the religious Piersol, who is mostly concerned with his own standing and the appearance of piety, rather than with actually helping his self-declared flock.  However, A Small and Remarkable Life is not an indictment of religion as a whole as Piersol is clearly shown to be an individual and not necessarily representative of organized religion.

A Small and Remarkable Life is a small and remarkable book.  Barely more than two hundred pages in length, DiChario demonstrates the ability he has gained as a short story author to fill the book with well-defined characters, complex situations, and enough philosophy to fill a much longer novel.

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