Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 426
An accomplished short-story writer as well as a novelist, Johnson uses the briefer form to explore many of the same themes and concerns touched on in his novels. He is especially interested in the relationship between the individual, particularly the African American male, and the larger world. In the short stories of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, this relationship is often expressed in philosophical terms, even though the situations may, at first, seem to have little connection with philosophy.
In “The Education of Mingo,” for example, a young slave in the antebellum United States is purchased by an elderly farmer, significantly named Moses, who sets out to educate Mingo in the ways of white culture. The result is that Mingo finds his “coherent, consistent, complete” universe replaced with one that is “alien, contradictory, strange.” As a result of this reeducation, Mingo kills two white people, thinking his actions are expected by his master. Moses recognizes what he has done, and yet he is unable to turn his student over to the authorities, who will surely execute him.
The ability of individuals to be remade, sometimes by others, sometimes by themselves, is explored further in “China,” which brought Johnson a citation as a Pushcart Prize Outstanding Writer in 1984. Rudolph and Evelyn, a black couple in late middle age, have settled into a routine of vaguely dissatisfied married life when Rudolph discovers the lure of martial arts. Soon he is taking lessons in kung fu and other Eastern disciplines and exercising seriously to exchange his neglected, flabby body for a disciplined and stronger one. By the story’s end, Rudolph has largely re-created himself, to his wife’s bewilderment and dismay.
A second theme that runs through this collection concerns recognition and acceptance of one’s essential character. In “Alethia,” a middle-aged black professor suddenly learns how deeply he has betrayed his native roots. In the science-fiction story “Popper’s Disease,” a physician ministers to a sick alien in a crashed flying saucer, only to learn that the creature suffers from an incurable and all-too-human malady, the agonizing split between the individual and the outside world.
The title story fuses these themes as it traces the brief, abortive career of Allan Jackson, an apprentice to a black sorcerer, or conjure doctor, in rural South Carolina. Allan has some talent but not a true gift, and when his failure to cure a sick child makes him realize this, he renounces his career choice. Johnson demonstrates that while such insights can be painful, they are necessary for true maturity and wisdom.