Set in Medieval Spain, Walk On, Bright Boy (The Permanent Press, 144 pages), a story of a boy’s first confrontation with political and religious corruption, strives less for historical accuracy than for universal applicability. Written with lovely economy and sensitivity, it is reminiscent of a fable or of a young adult coming-of-age tale. At the same time, however, it is also complex in its exploration of human foibles and conflicting philosophies.
The hero, a boy who is never named, is part of a settlement of Catholic Spaniards, who have recently replaced a population of Moors. One Moor remains to help the new residents manage an irrigation system, which the Moors developed. The boy befriends the Moor, but after the disappearance of several small children, the Moor is demonized and accused of killing them. He is executed by a priest of the Inquisition who comes to the village for that purpose.
While the first half a the story is largely philosophical, as it deals with the development of the friendship between the Moor and the boy, and the boy’s coming to espouse a naturally revealed religion, rejecting the hypocrisies of organized religion, the second half of the story is fully dramatic. The boy stumbles upon the true murderer, witnesses the horrors of his deeds, and barely escapes. The depth of this novella along with the excitement of its plot makes it a very successful story that appeals to a various and large audience.
I think most readers will appreciate the message of the tale, which encourages one to come to know spirituality through the careful study of nature and teaches one the value of WALKING in life, as a kind of meditative practice. As an atheist, I did not find the critique of organized religion that interesting, and I was not inspired to find God through nature. (I was inspired to do more walking and hiking. What the story tells us about walking is truly enlightening.) But there is another message to this tale, not as obvious as the main one, that I did find compelling. This second message involves the character of the Inquisitor. Although he knowingly executes an innocent man, he is more practical than corrupt. The condemnation of the Moor helps to unify the village, so we are told. A Machiavellian to be sure, the Inquisitor acts as though the greater good justifies some lesser evils. We don’t believe this, but the boy at least understands the Inquisitor’s motives and presents his actions from his point of view.
We also learn the Inquisitor is himself executed later, when he becomes the victim of religious corruption. I couldn’t help but like the Inquisitor. He is clever and careful. He thinks before he acts. He is curious, too, which makes him a fairly good listener. He lets the boy talk at the trial, when a more corrupt tyrant would have been more controlling. The boy also holds him in some esteem, although not without some ambivalence too. It is the Inquisitor who saves the boy from the murderer, whisks him away from the village (in which he is no longer welcome as the Moor’s “special friend”), recognizes his intelligence, and becomes his mentor. If we like the narrator, the boy, and we do, we also like his two mentors indirectly, the Moor and the Inquisitor, who have helped the boy become the man who he is.
So there is a sentimental story here that everyone will enjoy or appreciate, but there is also another story for more careful, sensitive readers, an alter-story not quite counter to the main one or “deconstructing” it in any way, but adjacent to it, adding depth and meaning. Walk On, Bright Boy is an excellent, much undersung, little novel that you will take great pleasure in reading.
The hillside immediately above the settlement is gentle, patched with coppices and latticed with low stone walls raised as windbreaks to shelter the village huertas, and even the higher slopes, mantled by a great green blanket of chestnut trees, seem shaped by a familiar hand. But beyond the land patterned by man, the design is on a grander scale, the open rock-pocked pasture climbing steeply, sculpted by a power beyond our poor understanding, cased by bare cliffs and lozenged with the delicate encaustic of interlacing watersheds. Sentinel crags stand tall, like heralds for the high crests to the North, and all below becomes small and quiet, reduced by distance to a cunningly woven tapestry, in which on color leaches into another, and the divisions of humankind are indistinct. It is on the southern side of the range, the solana, in opposition, I like to think, to your great city on the umbria; and though my people knew little more than misery and want, though I long since turned my back on them and their ways, though I lived there in terror and left with bitterness, it is a place I recall with wonder and fondness. In memory, every day is bathed in sunlight, a sunlight that lay on the land as if sedated by its own heat, bewitched by the contours of the mountain, holding close the flowers and soft swaying grass of spring and summer, gilding the shifting shroud of crisp dead leaves in autumn, and waking countless winking diamonds in the winter snow. And always, in and around that lovely mountain, there is the Moor.
—V. N. Alexander, author of Trixie (2010), Naked Singularity (2003), Smoking Hopes (1996).