Medford has grown up on an island where everything Useful is Named – Herding Animals, Tanning Bark Trees, bowls, spoons. People are Carpenters, Carvers, Weavers. Anything Useless is Nameless and ignored – seabirds, shells, weeds. And then there’s Medford Runyuin, foundling, with a name that doesn’t mean anything. Apprenticed to a Carver, Medford wants nothing more than to become a Carver himself, respected on the Island. He doesn’t want to keep secretly carving things with no Use – a bowl with a squirrel curled up inside, a walking stick with a bird for a handle. Except, he kind of does want to keep carving them, Useless and Nameless though they are – and possibly even Unnameable and dangerous, capable of getting him banished from the Island.
The Unnameables is quite charming. It’s Medford’s coming of age story, it’s the story of a community adjusting and shifting, and it’s a story about art. It’s so gentle that it’s easy to see it as a happy story of acceptance, but it’s not quite. This model of community risks the tyranny of the majority, and is so isolated that the minority have no other options – there aren’t sub-communities and even their knowledge of the outside world is minimal. This threat is realized in the novel; Medford needs to fight for his right to carve what he wants and still be part of the only community he’s known. The novel presents its resolution as a happy ending, but I’m not satisfied; there will be dissent in the future, it will be as hidden as the carvings under Medford’s bed and make someone just as miserable as his secret carvings Medford, and even if it does come into the light, next time the community may not have the flexibility to find an accommodation. They deal with Medford’s situation, but they don’t think about the broader ramifications for their society.