Saturday, June 13, 2009


A few weeks ago, I pointed readers to Internet discussions of Patrica Wrede's book, Thirteenth Child. Miriam at the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribal Library submitted this comment:

It's really damning that it didn't occur to her that it at least needed explaining within the context of the world she built-- it's as if Natives were already invisible to her, and she swept them out of her alternate world without noticing what she had done, so she never felt she had to account for it. But kids aren't dumb; lots of readers, not just Natives, will be wondering, "but where are the native people in the New World in this alternate history?"

Over at dreamwidth on LiveJournal (so grateful to you, spiralsheep!), I found this excerpt and its link.

Wrede said:

The *plan* is for it to be a "settling the frontier" book, only without Indians (because I really hate both the older Indians-as-savages viewpoint that was common in that sort of book, *and* the modern Indians-as-gentle-ecologists viewpoint that seems to be so popular lately, and this seems the best way of eliminating the problem, plus it'll let me play with all sorts of cool megafauna). I'm not looking for wildly divergent history, because if it goes too far afield I won't get the right feel.

I agree with her on the 'hate' of what she calls "viewpoints." I don't think of them as viewpoints, though. Framing them as viewpoints legitimates them in a way they do not deserve. They are, in short, stereotypes. The bad and the good Indian, the bloodthirsty and the holier-than-thou. And forgive this bit of snarkyness: EARTH TO WREDE. YOU SAID WAS COMMON, SUGGESTING THAT THE 'INDIANS-AS-SAVAGES' PORTRAYAL DOESN'T HAPPEN ANYMORE. WRONG. IT IS STILL THERE.

Where she falls off the cliff, though, is when she says "without Indians." 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?!

The product description at Amazon says

"With wit and wonder, Patricia Wrede creates an alternative history of westward expansion that will delight fans of both J. K. Rowling and Laura Ingalls Wilder."

Wilder? Bingo! Elizabeth Bird at SLJ blogged the book, too. Read her review, and the comments. I am glad that the book is being discussed. I am confident that some writers will read everything being written about it, and be mindful of what they do with their own books. Course, there will be those who dig in their heels, too, and go along their Merry Manifest Destiny Way.

I wonder what Wrede will do with the discussion. The book is the FIRST in a series she's launched. I wonder what her editor is thinking, too. Controversy. Some writers (like Ann Rinaldi) say (with glee, it seems) that the controversy over a book makes it sell better. Likely so, but, Rinaldi didn't write any more books about American Indians after that, so, controversy also has a plus side for those of us who are tired of books like Thirteenth Child.


sara said...

Glad to see you taking a look at this.

There was an interesting rundown on Wrede's comments about the novel during its planning stages.

(Oh, and as an aside, Dreamwidth is a separate thing from LJ -- I'd be happy to pass along an invite code, if you're interested.)

peterb said...

Have you actually read the book, or is this criticism based entirely on internet forum angst and plot summaries?

If that latter, that seems an awfully slender reed on which to build a critique.

Debbie Reese said...

Dreamwidth is not LJ... ok, thanks. More out there than I can keep up with. Clicking links from one place to another, I lost track. No invite, though, not right now. Maybe later.

Thanks, too, for the link to the discussion. I read it just now. That is what I like to read.... people recognizing their lack of insight. They are changed, more knowledgeable about institutional racism and white privilege, and they'll carry that information with them, sharing it with others.

CaroleMcDonnell said...

I think a book can be judged by what the author herself has said she attempted to do. Wrede might have challenged herself to write an honest book that didn't deal with either stereotype but she herself says she chose not to do so. That's not internet forum angst or plot summaries; that's the author's plainly spoken intent.

Of course she doesn't owe any group anything. She doesn't have to challenge history if she doesn't want to. But to opt out of challenging the a nation of minorities who are well aware of the power of stereotypes is to believe that only white folks read books. I have no doubt that blacks, Asians, and Hispanics would be keenly aware that the book was not meant for them either . . . even if other minorities also pop up in the book.

2becontinued said...

Hi, I've been reading your blog for awhile now and really love it. Because of what you wrote here about Patricia Wrede, I decided to read the book and just finished. The story is interesting, and if I was younger and hadn't heard of the controversy around it, I probably would have really liked it. The creepy thing is that this book treats Indians pretty much the way I'd imagine any frontier, Manifest Destiny-type of book to treat Indians, as mostly invisible. It's just unlike in other frontier books, Wrede decided to physically wipe out Indians in her alternative history without explanation, at least in her first book of the series.
Another thing is that Wrede tried to give a multicultural sense in the book, in the way that African-based magic and Asian-based magic is shown to not be inferior to Western-based magic in the way that the heroine uses both to save the day, and that in the end of the book it's shown that Columbian (American) culture, and people are a mixture of Europe, Asia, and Africa. A good question then is since the book tries to be multicultural, why did Wrede erase an entire race? It doesn't make sense.