Julianne's Reviews > Westmark

Westmark by Lloyd Alexander
Rate this book
Clear rating

's review
Jul 29, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: fiction

Like most readers, I first encountered and read this book many years ago. So long ago, in fact, that I could not finish it in a day. I remember taking it with me on a visit to my grandparents' summer cottage and staying up to all hours of the night in order to reach the mind-bending (at the time) conclusion. It was probably about 2:00 in the morning by the time Theo & Co. found themselves being forced into charlatanry by their own government (Oh, the irony!), and I remember being incredibly creeped out by the yawning well shaft and the revelations that followed. The kind of creeped out that makes your hair stand up, your flesh crawl, and your blood run cold.

I've re-read the book two or three times since, and while the ending no longer creeps me out, the story still enthralls me. Theo, a former printer's devil and "lover of virtue," is the kind of hero I can get behind. One who notices what others don't, who ponders, who wonders and asks questions. He's certainly not incapable of taking action. However, the actions he takes are often (as with us) in response to circumstances beyond his control, and as such, are products of the moment, not completely intentional, and less appropriate, less heroic than Theo would like. Whenever Theo takes action, he seems to feel a little worse about himself than he did before. One gets the sense he is trying to live up to an unrealizable ideal, one he is as incapable of modifying as he is of embodying.

On the other end of the spectrum, Cabbarus is the kind of villain I can get behind. Cold and calculating, but not consciously or intentionally evil. In fact, Cabbarus is defined by nothing so much as his single-minded devotion to his own ideals of justice and virtue. Unlike so many fictional villains, he does not immediately create an impression of evil in the minds of his beholders. Rather, his glance "made all on whom it rested feel, in comparison with him, less noble, less high-minded, and that their linen needed changing" (35). In a certain sense, Cabbarus embodies, in the eyes of many, the sort of ideal that Theo carries in his mind. One could say that the chief difference between the two characters is Cabbarus's tendency to self-satisfaction, compared to Theo's self-dissatisfaction. Cabbarus tends to blame others when his schemes fail to produce his intended results; Theo tends to blame himself.

Thankfully, in addition to these two very different lovers of virtue, Westmark abounds in characters who don't really give a flying fig about all that. Characters who care more about the amount of food in their bellies (which after all, is very different from the amount of money in their purses) than about living up to anyone's ideal. This would include Theo's companions Count Las Bombas (aka Dr. Absalom, aka Mynheer Bloomsa, aka "whatever he's calling himself at the moment" (p. 110)), Musket, Mickle, and the two water rats Sparrow and Weasel. It is no accident that these characters all occupy some of the lowest rungs of society. Las Bombas and Musket (himself rescued from "the beggar factory") drift from town to town, rootless, residence-less--unless one counts their roomy coach as a residence. They are, in modern parlance, "homeless." Mickle, when we first encounter her, is a guttersnipe, a "collection of skin and bones" (p. 53), former apprentice to a thief who was hanged, illiterate as a bird (though not by choice). On perhaps the very lowest rung are Sparrow and Weasel, orphaned sister and brother, who survive by scavenging, an activity that extends to picking dead men's pockets. Their views on morality may be best summed up in this exchange with Keller, writer of a satirical journal:

"Water rats, I shall ask you a question. Are you thieves?"

"No," piped up Weasel, "but I'd like to be."

"I'm no thief either," said Sparrow. "I never had the luck." (p. 106)

In this world of the dispossessed and protector-less, practicality rather than morality is paramount. The concern is not with the world or the self as it should be, but as it is, and whatever actions are best calculated to enhance one's own survival (and the survival of those one cares about) are the "right" things to do. It is appropriate that Sparrow, much later, turns "out to be a demon at arithmetic" (The Beggar Queen, p. 24). Sparrow has been forced to become a quick and accurate calculator by living in a world of scarcity--or maybe she was born with the ability to grasp arithmetical concepts intuitively and that is why she and Weasel survive.

This is not to say that Alexander is saying virtue is a luxury for the rich or even for the reasonably well-fed. Rather, he seems to be pointing out that one's conception of virtue has a lot to do with one's own perspective and that this perspective is shaped to a great extent by one's circumstances. Many of the novel's "good" characters (a distinction that becomes increasingly meaningless the longer one reads in the series) grasp this concept out of hand. It is Cabbarus's great failing that he does not. It is Theo's great good luck that he finds himself plunged in circumstances that call his own ideals into question...and to his great good credit that he chooses to live through the questions. That he has managed to do so is attested in the last few pages by his admission to Las Bombas, "I'm not the one to blame you either. I was trying to be better than I am. I'm not as virtuous as I thought I was--or wanted to be. I wonder if anyone is, even Florian. I suppose we should be glad if we're able to do any good at all" (p. 183). It is appropriate that Theo finds such satisfaction in Florian's note to him, delivered 2 pages later, "My Child, You did well. Perhaps you even did right." When I first read the book, I thought Theo smiled at Florian's finally calling him "My Child." Now, I think Theo smiles because even Florian acknowledges he isn't absolutely certain what is right and what is wrong. Perhaps Theo recognizes that this simple fact binds the two of them together in a way Florian's good opinion of him could never do.

On the copyright page of my edition, Alexander notes this book is "For those who regret their many imperfections, but know it would be worse having none at all." A telling dedication, indeed. Appropriate for all readers, certainly, but perhaps especially appropriate for the young adults who are ostensibly this book's intended audience.
3 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read Westmark.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

09/10 marked as: read

No comments have been added yet.