A Hidden Place by
Robert Charles Wilson
The re-release of Robert Charles Wilson’s first novel, A Hidden Place (1986), is a welcome chance to see the early work of a writer whose more recent novel The Chronoliths and short story collection The Persieds and Other Stories have been recognized as New York Times notable books. “The Perseids” received an Aurora Award. Reminiscent of Theodore Sturgeon in its setting and themes, A Hidden Place portrays aliens in small town America during the Great Depression.
A Hidden Place isn’t really about aliens, though. Like all good science fiction, it’s really about humans and how we treat each other, and the long-term consequences of pain suffered at the hands of others. Travis and Nancy, two young misfits in the hopefully-named Haute Montagne, mirror in their own self-doubt and alienation the real alien in their town. Travis and Nancy come of age over the course of the novel as their self-perceptions are shown to them through the alien’s eyes. It’s satisfying to see them grow up by helping someone else.
Concurrent with the story unfolding in Haute Montagne are the hobo-journeys of the mysterious Bone. Bone is bigger than your average human, his torso oddly shaped, his speaking abilities sometimes rudimentary. While riding the rails across an increasingly impoverished America, Bone is swept along by Deacon and Archie, who find him alive after a brutal attack. Deacon and Archie are revealed by Bone, who appears to be a catalyst of some kind.
Deacon loses himself in revenge for a lifetime of wrongs. Archie, bound to Deacon by a terrible fear of being alone, suffers for it. Eventually, Bone suffers as well, and I for one was tensely involved with his fate for the last several chapters.
Wilson has written a wonderful period piece with echoes of Steinbeck as well as Sturgeon. Haute Montagne, and the hobo jungles where Bone lives, are microcosms rich with detail. One feels the hoboes’ constant fear of railroad police and the desperation of townspeople who know they are only a few steps from destitution themselves, the relentless approach of the
Depression as Creath Burack’s ice plant fails and Liza Burack’s political triumph with the Baptist Women. The town itself is almost an island, surrounded by prairie and connected to the world only by the railroad. The townspeople are trapped in Haute Montagne as humans are trapped on Earth. Travis and Nancy’s feelings of living in a world without choices resonate across time.
The strongest part of the book is its straightforward blending of the alien and the mundane. Travelers from another world are much more realistic and affecting when dressed in the trappings of humanity: Bone’s pea coat, too small for his alien form, seems symbolic of the impossibility of him ever blending in completely with humans. Travis finds more of himself in an alien than in a town that rejects him because his mother sold her body to keep herself alive. And, throughout, Nancy’s yearning to escape a town too small for her is reminiscent of an urge to journey and see strange worlds that any reader of science fiction can share.