The setting of “Scribe” by Alyson Hagy is somewhere in the southeastern United States. The time that it takes place in is less clear. People are living in the wake of a civil war and an epidemic, both of which killed many and left the survivors damaged and uprooted.There is a government that operates in an autocratic manner, though their presence in the remote hills this story takes place seems limited. Locally the social order is dictated by the competing interests of a strongman and a family with control of a large amount of land. Travel is by foot or by horse. Goods and services are acquired through a barter economy.
In exchange for scarce resources the main character offers a unique service that mystifies many — she can write. She will write a letter for someone in trade for things such as tobacco or food. This talent protects her from some of the dangers around her. Her ability is seen by some as an important commodity so she is left alone. She makes no effort to contradict rumors that she possesses other strange abilities, as the fear they induce also provides her with a certain amount of protection.
The story begins when a man comes asking her to write a letter. It is a confession and an atonement. His presence dredges up her past and disrupts the delicate equilibrium she has maintained. The book ends with a surreal, bloody road trip past abandoned farms, across a river and ending at a crossroads.
The lyrical writing and timeless setting give the story the quality of myth. A native of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Hagy imbues the book with the folktales and history of Appalachia. In fact, in the acknowledgments at the end of the book Hagy admits to “pilfering” family legends, regional histories, indigenous narratives and elements of the “Jack Tales.” One could argue that this story is an alternate history set after the civil war, but it seems more likely it is set in a potential future. A future where our country turned against itself once again and the subsequent chaos of war and disease pulled us back into the past.