Do you ever love a book that you feel you shouldn’t? I'm not talking about a typical “guilty pleasure” sort of book—legions of smart, emancipated women find themselves tucking into Twilight and its spawn as if they were chocolate-covered nougats. A little shamefacedly, they confess that they find the sexual politics of so many of these books utterly retrograde but nevertheless hugely enjoyable. But that guilt is a light one, not the kind that a person really feels, well, guilty about.
Read children's and YA editor Vicky Smith's last column on A Year with Butch and Spike.
Last year, Kirkus reviewed with complete enthusiasm Thirteenth Child by master fantasist Patricia Wrede. The author has charmed generations of children with her Enchanted Forest Chronicles, devilishly smart and funny fantasies about the Princess Cimorene, who decides that the boring life of a princess is not for her and runs away for a job as Cook and Librarian to a dragon.
Thirteenth Child eschews the typical proto-European forest of fantasyland for an alternate-history United States (of Columbia, not America), in which the Founding Fathers were not only great statesmen and nation builders but powerful magicians. When they established their infant country, they also erected the Great Barrier Spell, which runs roughly along the northern borders of what we call the United States and then down the Mammoth (read: Mississippi) River and keeps such dangerous magical wildlife as steam dragons, swarming weasels and sunbugs at bay in the literally wild west.
For me, just the setup was utter delight.
Growing up at the frontier is the titular unlucky 13th child, Eff, the daughter of a professor at a land-grant college and twin sister to Lan, the immensely powerful seventh son of a seventh son. Eff has been content living in her brother's shadow, but as the story deliberately progresses, she comes into her own in an entirely satisfactory fashion.
Eff does so by studying not only the Avrupan magic of Mr. Franklin and Mr. Jefferson but also Aphrikan and Hijero-Cathayan techniques, handily circling the globe.
But wait—what about Native Columbian magic?
There is none, as Wrede made the decision in conceptualizing her steampunk past not to populate her North Columbian continent with indigenous peoples. As she built her world, she shared on a discussion board on writing speculative fiction that she wanted to achieve a "North America in which the threat of Indians was replaced by the threat of un-extinct megafauna, both magical and non-magical in nature." Her interlocutors in this Usenet group were unfazed and joined in a discussion on how to name geographies and cultures in this altered past.
But when the book was published, others noticed. Debbie Reese, a prominent Native American critic of children's literature, exclaimed in anguish, "Beneath her words is an assumption about her audience: who it is, what they will buy, what they will revere, what they will notice...or not. It is pretty interesting for me to think about, especially because, as her bio on the Amazon website says, she lives in Minnesota! Lots of reservations there, and lots of Ojibwe's and Dakotas. Are they invisible to Wrede?!"
Oh, my. A colleague at another book review asked me that summer, "What are you going to do about Thirteenth Child?" Of course, we had already done it. Because of our ferocious pre-publication schedule, we had gone to press with a starred review before I ever became aware of the controversy. Certainly, I was a member of that presumed non-Native audience, and I lapped the whole book up without thinking twice.
The thing is, I think I can feel where Reese and many others are coming from. How would I feel if my entire people had been annihilated—no, not even annihilated: erased—even if only in fiction? Pretty sucker punched, especially if my entire people had been systematically abused and persecuted for centuries in the nonfictional world. I think I can understand her sense of the breathtaking presumption on the part of the author.
But I also still really love the books. Yes, books, plural. The second book in the so-called Frontier Magic series, Across the Great Barrier, has just come out, and I confess that I lapped it up, too, although I was certainly aware of the vast openness of the Columbian West in a way that I hadn't been when I read the first book. I was curious to see if Wrede would have tried to splice in some Native Columbian peoples in an acknowledgment of the desperate unhappiness among so many of her readers. She hadn't. Really, I don't think she possibly could have.
This goes beyond Wrede to so much of our literature, both great and not-so-great. Every year children devour the Little House books despite their terribly hurtful depictions of Native Americans, for instance. Some of us give Laura Ingalls Wilder a pass of sorts, saying she was a product of her times, a forgiveness that we cannot extend to Wrede—and, depending on the reader, to ourselves, when we enjoy her series.
Find great books with solid representations of Native Americans.
We are left with two realities that are equally valid. A book can succeed as literature and fail at doing what our own Mr. Franklin et al. were trying to do—create a more perfect union.
Vicky Smith is the children's and YA editor at Kirkus.