S. D. Smith’s books are always full of memorable lines and quotable truths. But in the middle of The Black Star of Kingston, which I reread recently, I came across a line in particular that I had to really think about to understand its meaning. Here it is:
“I want him to have it,” Fleck said, pressing [his patch] into the prince’s hands. “This was my father’s patch. He was a hero.”
“So you are like your father?” the prince asked, his eyes wide as he reverently received the patch.
“He is,” King Whitson said.
“I am,” Fleck whispered.—The Black Star of Kingston, pg. 148
When I read these lines, I did something of a double take. Even after several rereads, I didn’t derive any meaning from it other than: “Wow. Fleck is arrogant.” I mean, it isn’t hard to think that, right? Here Whitson—the king, mind you—has just called Fleck a hero, and Fleck just agrees without even a respectful attempt to brush him off? Huh?
But as I dwelled on it, my opinion slowly began to change, and I realized it isn’t quite that simple. But to fully understand what is going on here, we need to back up and take a look at Fleck’s history and the events leading up to this exchange.
A miner-turned-soldier, Fleck was one of many in King Whitson’s community who fled Golden Coast after it was invaded by wolves. Fleck’s father, Jon Blackstar, stayed behind along with a few others to fight so as to allow this escape to occur. He and the others who remained are hailed by Fleck as “heroes of Golden Coast,” and rightly so; it is presumed they were slain there.
Fast forward a few years to the events of Black Star, and the humble, grounded, focused Fleck has risen into favor with the king, who joins him on an expedition across Ayman Lake to mine coal in the foothills of what would later be known as the High Bleaks. The expedition goes awry, however, when Fleck’s company is attacked by birds of prey and the Battle of Ayman Lake ensues. Fleck is all but idle during this skirmish. He defends Whitson’s son, Lander, as well as other soldiers; hurls himself directly into the talons of an attacking raptor; returns to battle despite his comrade Galt’s desertion and his own wounds; comes up with a plan to light blastpowder barrels to create a massive explosion; and tackles Whitson out of reach of attacking raptors and off the ship’s deck just as the barrels ignite and decimate their enemies.
After the battle, a weak and injured Fleck gifts Lander with his father’s black-starred mining patch, at which point the lines above are spoken. Fleck is a hero, like his father, the king says. Quietly, Fleck agrees. And again the question is raised: If Fleck wasn’t being arrogant, what does he mean?
The answer is surprisingly simple: Fleck knows he has done right. He advanced on the raptors without waiting for them, the more powerful species, to make the first move. He didn’t balk in the face of death and loss, but charged back into battle because he knew he would rather die than desert. Even when he was slashed with wounds and on the brink of losing consciousness, he braved the eye of the storm to rescue the failing Whitson literally out from under the raptors’ claws. He remained loyal. Courageous. Willing to risk everything so that the king and his line might continue.
Humility is a virtue, but Fleck is not being unhumble. He does not smirk like The Green Ember‘s Kyle or proclaim his greatness from the rooftops, nor does he shove what he has done in Whitson and Lander’s faces—after all, it was Whitson who recognized it first. Instead, Fleck is quietly and happily acknowledging—more to himself than either Whitson or Lander—the distinction he has made between right and wrong. He has remained brave, faithful, and good in the midst of a battle full of opportunities to be otherwise. He has shown that he is a buck whose character is something of worth. And in doing so, he has lived up to his father’s memory, something it is clear throughout the book he has wanted greatly.
Fleck is a Kingsbuck. A hero, in his own right.
The Black Star of Kingston.