260. Early Andre Norton: At Sword’s Point

This is not bait and switch. This week will be devoted to early Nortons, but the news of Fidel Castro’s death makes a few timely words necessary.

This morning I watched some of Castro’s victims being interviewed, people of middle age who were forced to flee their homes as children. Many were still mourning the loss of parents as their families were separated when they fled to America. It begs the question: how can the expulsion of Cubans from Cuba be wrong, and the mass deportation of undocumented American residents be right?

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This post and tomorrow’s are about the Sword Trilogy, Andre Norton’s first multi-book story. The other posts this week are also devoted to very early Nortons.

In my library (spare bedroom) there is a shelf of books on languages, and prominent there is my collection of books on how to teach yourself Dutch or, more properly, Nederlandish. Why Dutch? Why not German which I sort of learned in high school, or Hindi which I kind of learned in college? I could give you logical reasons, but they wouldn’t be honest. The truth is, I fell in love with the Netherlands, and a Norton novel was the cause.

The book was At Sword’ Point. I read it in high school and I re-read it every few years after that until the last library discarded their last copy. Then I bought it used through mail-order. Naturally, it turned out to be a discarded library book. I have it on the desk as I type.

Quinn Anders shivered as he limped up a moss-greened walk to the square New England house and raised his hand to the polished brass eagle doing bored duty as a knocker.

In the first sentence we know that Quinn is not a fire breathing super hero. He shivers. He is also not a perfect physical specimen. He limped. We learn later that he has suffered from polio, a disease common in the era, and that his scholarly nature comes from time spent bedridden as a child. By the time Norton tells us this, we want to know. It is not a narrative intrusion, but an answer to questions she has already teased into our minds.

She also informs us that she is an old fashioned writer, not afraid to use more words than are necessary (the polished brass eagle doing bored duty as a knocker, for God’s sake) and that her writing will be circuitous. That’s Norton. If you don’t like that first sentence, you had better go read someone else.

It worked for that era (and for the multitude of Norton fans). When the novel was published in 1954, the Soviets were consolidating their hold on Eastern Europe and had just detonated their first H bomb. The missile race and the space race were in the near future and escaped Nazis filled popular literature.

Quinn Anders is seeking help in finding out what happened to his older brother, killed in an auto “accident” in the Netherlands. In fact, his brother was part of an unofficial underground, headed by Lorens van Norries, whom you will meet tomorrow; the group came together in resistance to the Nazis, and has changed enemies to resist the Soviets. Quinn goes to  the Netherlands to finish the book his late father began on an obscure order of knights from the Middle Ages. At the same time he is looking for clues to his brother’s death, and to the ancient, gem encrusted porcelain knight that was his brother’s last gift.

He succeeds, of course. No spoiler alert needed for that statement. He also finds himself accepted by a band of like minded adventurers. That is, he finds a family, which is a familiar pattern in Norton, and in young adult literature as a whole.

At Sword’ Point is well plotted and satisfying, but what lifts it above other Norton works is the brooding atmosphere of the Netherlands, half medieval and half modern. I fell in love with the place. It didn’t hurt that Lorens and Kane had had lives of their own in earlier books, which I discovered afterward. You’ll hear about them tomorrow.

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6 thoughts on “260. Early Andre Norton: At Sword’s Point

  1. charcamolson

    I’m not sure your comparison is as close as you think. Setting aside moral and practical judgements on the merits or lack thereof in mass deportation, these are the bones of the two separate events as I see them:
    -Cubans, if I’m not mistaken, were fleeing from the land of their birth for fear of being slaughtered for… political beliefs or just because. They lost the homes that were legally theirs from the start.
    -Undocumented Immigrants to America would be returned, intentionally intact, to the land of their birth, for not respecting existing laws in how they entered the country. They would lose homes that were NOT theirs legally as they never had the standing to own them.

    Now, reengaging on the bones with moral judgement, the first seems to me to be a justice issue. The Cubans were OWED the homes that Castro took from them. They were also OWED a place in the country of their birth and they were OWED the right to live peaceably without fear for their lives. There was an existing social contract between them and any government, and Castro clearly broke that contract.

    Undocumented American Immigrants, however, are the ones committing an injustice (a relatively minor one, granted). They have knowingly taken a place that is not rightfully theirs. For many this is done in desperate circumstances. The idea of punishing any of them for it is absurd, as, if they HAVE in some way economically injured American Citizens, its entirely incalculable and in no way the same as them going out and robbing someone. They have also paid for places/possessions/etc with money that was earned. It could be considered forfeit, as they had no RIGHT to be here earning it, but taking away money from someone in poverty that they did actual, good labor to get is dirty. Still, their situation is unlawful. If they are expelled from their place and sent HOME, to the land of their birth, it is for entirely legitimate reasons.

    Boiling it down (and ending up with twice as much, as usual), US Americans do not OWE undocumented immigrants a place in the country. Justice does not demand that they have one. It may demand that they keep what they earned when they go, but it does not demand that they be given a place, and in fact the argument that it is unjust to simply ignore laws and let people stay who have no right to stay, is sound. Thus, any argument insisting that they be given a place must rely on MERCY, which is the impulsion to give people that which they ARE NOT OWED. Tangling justice and mercy causes serious problems, as committing an injustice against one person in order to grant a mercy to another… is an injustice. US Citizens are OWED law enforcement and sensible immigration protections BY their government. Prospective immigrants are not owed the MERCY of being granted a place in the country, though it is sound policy for a nation to allow people to immigrate. Illegal immigrants (because that IS what someone is who immigrates against the laws of a country) are even more so not owed the MERCY of receiving a place in a country.

    All of this falls short of concocting an actual solution. It is simply the bare bones analysis of who owes what to whom. Nations/People/Companies are rarely prospered by only giving what is owed. Going beyond what is owed is wise practice, in addition to being simply right. HOWEVER, that said, NOT GIVING what is OWED is terrible practice and causes no end of strife. Thus, in any solution, it is important to first figure out who is OWED something, and see that they get it, and then determine how much mercy can be afforded, and grant that. Doing it the other way around guarantees that you have more and more people who do not get what they are owed, which only begets more injustice, and an eventual explosion as the social contract is voided.

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    1. sydlogsdon Post author

      Your logic is correct, as far as it goes, but legalistic arguments have covered a multitude of morally repellent acts throughout history. My statement was simpler. Whether you are Castro, or Trump, or a slave owner sending his excess slaves down the river, or a crazed terrorist in Africa, it is wrong to break up families.
      It would be unfair, however, to give so short a reply. The conservative argument rests largely on the notion that undocumenteds have harmed America workers by illegal infiltration resulting in the loss of American jobs. Actually, it seems to me, undocumented workers provide an underpaid, easily controllable work force, doing the jobs Anglos won’t do for the wages paid, and held down by fear of deportation. Our society has provided difficult legal entry and a border about as effective as a sieve. Who benefits? Farm owners and American’s eating cheap food. Who loses? Underpaid undocumenteds.
      Of course we can agree to disagree. You and I usually do.
      Beyond my reasoning is my motivation. I taught middle school for twenty-seven years. Half my students were Mexican-American. Many of them were certainly undocumented. I know something of what their life was like in Mexico, and something of what they went through getting here. I came to love them, and it breaks my heart to see them mistreated.

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      1. charcamolson

        Going into everything I’ve heard in my life about this situation would take forever. Please understand that, asked for an actual solution, my usual answer would be, “This situation is about 90x more complex than most people give it credit for, and any actual solution would require bipartisan commitment to a full compromise.”

        I broke it down into what is Owed and what is Merciful simply because I believe any solution must always put them in that order. My rock-bottom understanding is that everyone needs mercy. I DO believe it would be unkind AND impractical to kick umpteen million residents out of this country, and would not end up benefiting the people of the United States for any number of reasons. At the same time, I believe in rule of law. Shifting that argument slightly, the LACK of enforced rule of law actually puts illegal immigrants in a position where they can be abused by immoral business owners, who know they can get away with it because the people they are employing can’t complain without drawing attention that could get them deported. This is not good, for the obvious moral reasons as well as for the practical reason that it allows business owners willing to engage in illegal practices to gain a leg up by underpaying their workers, which imbalances the situation for legal workers.

        A very basic picture of what I believe a solution would entail would be an amnesty tied to a comprehensive immigration-law reform and border patrol funding to enforce it. This would answer both the cause of mercy and of justice, keep families together, make illegal immigrants legal so there would no longer be a pool of workers who could be abused without drawing legal attention, provide for better screening at the borders, allow people with necessary skills to immigrate more easily, etc etc. YET… the two parties seem more interested in living like Frank Underwood than in taking the risk of granting that the other side actually has some points and coming up with a (mostly, because the best politics only ever get to mostly) mutually acceptable solution.

        Now, if we want to talk about useful deportations… if you ever come up with a way to identify all the Frank Underwoods in politics we should definitely write up a bill to send them to an island somewhere far away. Or maybe Mars, as guinea pigs.

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  2. charcamolson

    At Sword’s Point is on Kindle Now, for very little. I will add it to my ever growing waiting list of Kindle Samples. *Sigh* There simply is not enough time for all the books, and the writing of them, and everything else.

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    1. sydlogsdon Post author

      Sorry about that. It gets worse. There are more Nortons this week, and a bunch of Harold Goodwins coming in mid-December. The internet has become the last refuge of a lot of great books.

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      1. charcamolson

        Oddly, what I remember most about Andre Norton is her short cat stories in Catfantastic. I think I got every single one of those and her adventures of Thragun Neklop, the siamese cat protecting his family from all manner of unlikely threats, were my favorites. Total nostalgia right now.

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