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.


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