Saturday, February 4, 2012

Controversy on a fantasy frontier

I consider Patricia C. Wrede's The Enchanted Forest Chronicles to be one of the funniest kids fantasy series I've ever had the pleasure of reading, so when I came across her recent young adult fantasy book Thirteenth Child at the library, I checked it out. The book itself is pleasant and rather unique in its approach - Wrede's sets her story in the American frontier and builds magic systems that play on older fantasy tropes as well as creating newer ones. A major theme in the book is the importance of different magic styles and traditions - while the majority of magic is European, main character Eff finds herself applying different magics and thus saving the day.

But when I went online to read a bit more about the book (a habit I really ought to be breaking), I learned that there was significant controversy surrounding this simple book when it was published. Apparently, many readers took fault with the fact that at no point in the story does Wrede mention American Indians; in fact, it seems as though she has consciously removed them from her fictionalized world. It was only after reading about the drama that it even occurred to me that Thirteenth Child had lacked mention of American Indians - the omission seems to fit (in my mind) with many other not-so-subtle changes Wrede makes in her world.

It does beg the question: is it okay? Many, many readers have expressed outrage at this "racism", have dubbed Wrede's choice as inexcusable, and have attempted to minimize the book's exposure. But is it justified? Coming straight out of the book, I'm not sure the criticism fair. Wrede has written an alternate history fantasy, meaning it's all made-up. Yes, there are a few references to American Founding Fathers and Lewis and Clarke and others, but the names of the regions, the timing of major historical events (like wars, for example), animals, the presence of magic and many other cultural differences make it very obvious that Thirteenth Child is fantasy fiction. It is not meant to reflect our real world to the letter. And with the nice way Wrede touches on racism and the exclusion of non-European traditions in "modern" society, I find myself less and less inclined to charging Wrede with inappropriate world-building. I'm curious as to what others think of this matter.


  1. I find fantasy fiction really hard to swallow. I haven't read this book, and I probably won't, but maybe something like this would work better if it were more strictly allegorical and less wedded to the "real" world- although it doesn't seem wedded very tightly. Huh.

  2. I don't know -- I don't know. I don't know. I love Patricia C. Wrede, and her books were this very formative part of my childhood, and she gave me writing advice one time that meant the world to me. BUT I have to admit it bugs me that she left out the American Indians; not because I demand that she includes every aspect of real American history, but because the way the Indians were treated by white settlers is such a huge blight on our history that it seems cheap and dishonest to just get rid of it, in a way that it wouldn't feel cheap to get rid of, say, the gold rush. Even if the book is an alternate version of the world.

  3. I think if question had been about leaving out anyone else, it would be less sore. Not completely unsore, but less. Frontier fiction, *specifically* is horribly whitewashed, with a MASSIVE propendency to overwrite native-- especially Mexican and Spanish speaking native peoples, roles in that period... Not just as a narrative, but by stealing their lands, writing corrupt laws, refusing to enforce laws that protect their homesteads and ancestral places, punishing them for fighting back... Not to mention that the most well known American western tropes, of wandering cowboys ranging with their cattle, was heavily mixed-race, with a large portion of them being part or all black or native or Hispanic. Yet our media for decades portrayed them as white good ol boys, with dramatic tension whenever one or two characters dare to be something less vanilla. It wouldnt have been surprising to frontiersman to see a non-white cowboy.

    1. Wow, I was not expecting a new comment on this post from 2012, haha! To be honest, I think my original thoughts were pretty shallow and I don't really feel this same way anymore for a lot of reasons. You're absolutely right that there's a huge problem in whitewashing frontier literature, and to add to that: I think that there's a huge problem in wanting a specific type of fantasy to exist in place of existing traditions, which is sort of what ended up happening here. Wrede easily could have simply... not treated her story as a purely white-lensed one, even within the framework of the fantasy story she wanted to tell. Fiction is fiction and all, but there are larger factors at play behind the choices writers make and the stories that are ignored, something I've learned pretty expressly in recent years. My younger self, it seems, was far too generous to authors in this regard. And sometimes it's nice to see how things have changed. :)


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