This story has been much acclaimed as Simak’s best work. I hadn’t read it in such a long time that I wondered if it would still live up to that reputation. It did, it does. Simak really enjoyed his first contact stories and quest stories but this isn’t either.
Enoch Wallace was a Civil War veteran living in the rural mountains of Wisconsin in 1963; looking much as he did at the end of that war. Enoch lived quietly and gave his neighbors no cause to fear or hate him; those mountain people being somewhat reclusive and private themselves. Enoch ran a way station for the Galaxy, a transfer point for beings traveling to more distant destinations. It was satisfying, fascinating and yet lonely. He could tell no one on Earth what he did and the visitors he had came and went quickly. He could have closed himself up in his now-impregnable house and been self-sufficient living on what the Galaxy brought him; but he felt a lingering need to maintain even an infrequent contact with his own planet and his neighbors. When he stayed within his house, he didn’t age; he only aged when outside; but an hour or two a day was enough for him to feel the sun and speak to his rare friend - the postman, Winslowe, who brought him supplies. He also had a passing acquaintance with a beautiful young deaf-mute girl who lived nearby. She was a most curious girl, one who could charm warts away and heal broken butterfly wings.
Eventually, as all things must, Enoch’s seclusion comes to an end. Rumors of him finally reached the ears of someone in the CIA who became curious enough to come and investigate. What the agent, Lewis, found only raised more questions: a farmhouse that couldn’t be entered and showed no wear from weather, a small shed attached to the farmhouse that appeared to be Enoch’s living quarters but didn’t hold sufficient items to account for all that the postman would bring. But the most curious thing of all was what Lewis found in Enoch’s family cemetery - a grave with a most curious gravestone, engraved in an unknown language. And removing the contents of that grave would prove to have an almost disastrous repercussion for the whole Earth.
Meanwhile, Enoch’s best friend, an alien he named Ulysses, comes bearing bad news. For a century, Enoch has believed the multi-raced galaxy confederation was composed of benevolent beings who would welcome Earth into its fold if only Earth could prove itself worthy. War after war distressed Enoch, worrying him that Earth would never prove itself worthy. Based on an alien philosophy and science that he acquired, he started keeping records hoping to find a trend that would point to Earth’s ascension to be better. But he found quite the opposite, all his research and calculations indicated that Earth was heading into a great war; possibly the war-to-end-all-wars. So when Ulysses confesses over a cup of coffee that the galaxy is having problems, relationships are breaking down, petty quarrels are occurring and that a faction is just looking for an excuse to shut down the Earth station, Enoch realizes it could be much worse than he imagined. Ulysses offers him a solution to preventing the war but when Enoch realizes what the long-term effect would be for all of mankind, he knows he can’t do it - certainly not by himself. No one could make such a decision on their own. But there’s more: the Galaxy once had a remarkable device invented/built by a long-dead philosopher which would, in the right hands, be a unifying force for peace. But it has been stolen for a great many years and Ulysses believes its loss is the reason for the Galaxy confederation fragmenting. Even before it was stolen, its effect was decreasing because a proper custodian who could utilize it fully hadn’t been found in a long time. Such custodians were rare and hard to find. And then, to cap off his evening, Enoch’s station is invaded by a fugitive alien who escapes outside the house - a catastrophic event. No alien visitor had ever left the station; a strictly forbidden act.
After so many quiet years, a century’s worth, Enoch’s life was about to crash down on him in the space of a few hours. If the CIA is willing to return the alien body they stole before the aliens take corrective action, if Enoch’s neighbors don’t take up arms against him, if he can capture and return the runaway alien before it is discovered, if, if, if…
Yes, indeed, this story is still great. Simak did a great job with Enoch and the supporting characters. The world-building is good and the plot is wonderful. And the whole story is told in just 210 pages due to Simak’s sparse style, where he imparts a wealth of information or feeling in just a few words. ~~ Catherine Book