REVIEW: “The Secret History of the Original Line” by T. L. Rodebaugh

Review of T. L. Rodegbaugh, “The Secret History of the Original Line”, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet #36 Early Autumn pp. 9-16. Purchase here. Review by Ben Serna-Grey. 

This is an extremely interesting historical piece, with a mix of fantasy. I haven’t been able to tell yet if it also follows in the speculative fiction tradition of alternate history stories. It tells of an expedition sent out by the King to trace and bind a border between Virginia and Carolina in what would otherwise be called the United States of America. The story takes the form of an expedition log, similar to the travel narratives that were popular in the 1800s by writers such as Herman Melville.

The history, cultural differences, and mythology make themselves readily apparent. The narrator speaks of their disgust of their Carolinian workmate, a pompous man who brings two indentured servants with him on the expedition. Our narrator sarcastically calls the man Christian in honor of his pious nature. The writing style reminds me of Melville, Hawthorne, Poe, and Mary Shelley in all the best ways, though the more thickly-written style, combined with the slightly longer length compared to the other stories in this issue made “The Secret History” take a while longer to get through.

The group comes upon a hermit, naked and seemingly savage, especially to Christian, though he quickly shows his nuanced intelligence as he converses with the other men. He explains it’s all well and good the King wants to parse out the land for his commissioners, but it’s owned by no one and changes every day: “If you parcel it out today, you will find it a different matter tomorrow.” The hermit becomes a focal point of the story, as does the aftermath of what happens to the survey team after meeting him.

It’s a skillful piece, though bleak and dreadful with hints at time travel and themes of inevitable war, doom, global climate change, and revenge. For those who think a story straddling the line between the “literary” and the speculative would strike their fancy I recommend this very highly. It’s another standout in this issue of the magazine, along with The Crane Alphabet and a few others. There are a lot of gaps in the story to fill in yourself, and it may take a couple readings to fully grasp everything, but it’s well worth the investment. Congratulations are also in order as this is apparently also Rodebaugh’s first published piece of fiction, and a very accomplished one at that.