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When I was in Junior High I read a novel where this young person is growing up in a primitive human culture. Details are fuzzy, but this is roughly what I remember:

  • He builds some kind of water-wheel that runs in the river that runs through the valley.
  • But his people are not supposed to build machines.
  • They have some basic knowledge of astronomy and there is a special star with meaning to them (turns out to be Sol)
  • Later the boy goes on a quest into the mountains and finds a lady who knows about the people's past
  • Turns out they came from Earth (obviously)
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Your description reminds me of "The Silk and the Song" by Charles L. Fontenay (first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, July 1956, available at the Internet Archive), although not everything fits. For one thing it's a novelette, not a novel; and there's nothing about a water-wheel or a river. So this is probably not the story you're looking for, but I'm telling you about it just in case you're mixing up two different stories.

, , , this young person is growing up in a primitive human culture.

The hero, Alan, is a young slave on a planet where humans, who arrived by starship a thousand years ago, are kept as slaves by the nonhuman natives of the planet.

They have some basic knowledge of astronomy and there is a special star with meaning to them (turns out to be Sol)

They call it (our Sol) the Golden Star, and they have a song about it, which begins:

Twinkle, twinkle, golden star,
I can reach you, though you're far.

Later the boy goes on a quest into the mountains and finds a lady who knows about the people's past

Alan escapes his slave-pen and meets a girl named Mara, of the Wild Humans, who leads him to their refuge in the mountains:

"Who are you, and where are you taking me?" asked Alan. In the cold light of dawn he was beginning to doubt his impetuousness in fleeing the castle.

"My name is Mara," said the girl. "You've heard of the Wild Humans? I'm one of them, and we live in these mountains."

Of course Mara knows the story, as do all of the Wild Humans; but Alan hears it from The Refugee, an old man who is the leader of the Wild Humans. (The "Star Tower" is the starship in which the humans came to the planet.)

"The tradition says that the Star Tower was once the home of all humans. There were only a dozen or so humans then, but they had powers that were great and strange. But when they came out of the Star Tower, the Hussirs were able to enslave them through mere force of numbers.

"Three of those first humans escaped to these mountains and became the first Wild Humans. From them has come the tradition that has passed to their descendants and to the humans who have been rescued from Hussir slavery.

"The tradition says that a human who enters the Star Tower can free all the humans in the world--if he takes with him the Silk and the Song."

Turns out they came from Earth (obviously)

Yep. And in the end the two of them, Alan and Mara, are on there way back to Earth, in suspended animation aboard the starship.

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    not it, but cool!
    – zipquincy
    Sep 17 '14 at 15:36
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This is not an exact fit, but could it be "Heirs of Empire" by David Weber?

There is a water wheel, and because people are not supposed to build 'advanced technology', it has to go through a test to see if it will be allowed. The POV is from the (young, but not a boy) priest administering the test, rather than the builder.

They have little understanding of astrology, but they used to have a lot more. They remember danger from beyond the stars, but the knowledge had been suppressed that they quarantined their world against an ancient plague. There is a falling star to which they ascribe a lot of meaning, but it is actually a ship from earth, arriving past an ancient quarantine system.

A woman (from Earth) tells him the truth about their history and secrets kept by their church. It's not a simple quest for answers, he had gotten tangled into a larger quest with the people from Earth before finding out the truth - but eventually he learns the whole story from one of them, a woman he had grown close to.

The things that fit less well - the the viewpoint switches back and forth between several people, of which the young priest is only one. There is no viewpoint of a young boy, and it covers some of what it meant to live in the society but didn't dwell on growing up there. The main focus is on the people from earth (as it is third in a trilogy focusing on that family). And the 'quest to find answers' is really not at all so neat...The travelers on the spaceship were thought demons, then angels, and the whole thing had gotten tangled up in religious controversy in the meantime (uncovering those things deliberately suppressed). And the rest of the story happens.

Like I said, I'm not sure it's the best fit. But the specific details seem to match between the books even if the overall story-arcs seem to be somewhat different, and I thought it would be worth mentioning. I hope you find it.

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