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So Many Books... - Thirteenth Child, Patricia Wrede

May. 15th, 2009

05:34 pm - Thirteenth Child, Patricia Wrede

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I'm going to have to put my hand up on this one, and admit that I loved it while reading it, and felt that the absence of Native Americans in the alternate historical setting of Columbia might not be automatically wrong. For one thing, I thought it was an alternate enough world, and even more I suspected that there'd be a revelation about the peopling of the land in the second book which might undercut what the people living near the Frontier thought they knew about the areas farther west.

Then I saw this today: "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)".

[ETA the link for the quote, thanks to coalescent. It was here. Also edited to remove a bit of disclaiming about how I hadn't seen the original link. I think her reply to the reply is ... well, there's not much hope of what I've hoped for at the end of this post.]

Because that statement is -- well, not something I can hold together with loving the book its author produced.

That said, and I hope said clearly enough, I also want to explain briefly why it makes me so very, very sad. Primarily it's because the seriousness with which Wrede treats her system(s) of magic is fantastic. The repeated phrase is Harry Potter meets Little House and personally I think that's daft, because this book blows the magic classes in Harry Potter so far out of the water it's ridiculous. Kids in Thirteenth Child start learning magic in the 4th grade and in Eff's school, they're taught, by the wonderful Miss Ochiba, not to wave wands around or make potions but to look at everything from multiple perspectives. And they go on to learn theory, and Miss Ochiba teaches them the three types of magic, rather than just the dominant European-equivalent magic. And Wrede doesn't write down to anyone, but treats her readers with the respect for their curiosity for how things WORK that Miss Ochiba gives her students. BTW, Miss Ochiba is not 'humorously depicted', as I have seen it claimed that all PoC are in the book.

Another thing I loved about it was the depiction of the Rationalists - a group believing that magic is a crutch which will weaken people physically and mentally, and so refuse to use it themselves. This could have been such an easy opportunity to dismiss them all as narrow-minded cranks, but they aren't at all. They're intelligent people (some of them, anyway) who've made a choice which is very much against the grain of societal norms and accept the abuse and hardship living by their beliefs brings. BUT, it's not that simple either. Just when you're thinking that the arrogance of some of the higher-level magic practitioners (as, for example, the professors in the college where Eff's father teaches) and the apparent validation of the Rationalists' views about the dangers of relying on magic is going to be shown to be 100% right, there's a twist. One of Eff's sisters is living in a Rationalist settlement, and suddenly things change when she gives an anguished outburst about the cost of not using the magic that's as much a part of her as her sight or limbs. Multiple perspectives again.

And there's the fact that it's a fantasy in which the grave crisis which the protagonist(s) will have to face is a *bug* which is destroying crops. How cool is that? No Dark Lord, no World Domination plans, but a perfectly naturally intentioned grub. Plus the family dynamics are great. I was especially pleased at Eff's parents' calm certainty that it was not only damaging for Eff to be bullied as a result of anti-thirteenth child bigotry but equally damaging for her twin brother Lan to be treated as the special snowflake he actually is, as the seventh son of a seventh son. They're so right about this, and about being determined enough to save both children from it to take the drastic step of leaving the town where they've lived and all the family there to move out to the Frontier.

Yes, but, I haven't forgotten who *should* be inhabiting the lands where that frontier is... It's very hard to imagine how the series could be saved at this point, but it would be truly magical if Wrede could acknowledge the massive offense in the erasure of Native Americans in the book and make it right in later ones.

Current Music: Of Angels And Angles - The Decemberists

Comments:

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From:coalescent
Date:May 15th, 2009 04:39 pm (UTC)
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The quote is from a post to rec.arts.sf.composition.
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From:lady_schrapnell
Date:May 15th, 2009 04:42 pm (UTC)
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That's that then. Thank you very much for taking the time to give me the link. I'll edit now.
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From:steepholm
Date:May 15th, 2009 08:43 pm (UTC)
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Oh dear - I feel your pain! It's really hard when one's conflicted like this about a book, especially one that seems to have so much going for it in other departments. Wrede's comment on her comment as linked by coalescent only makes matters worse, alas - a strange mix of arrogance and naivete. Such a shame.
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From:lady_schrapnell
Date:May 15th, 2009 09:20 pm (UTC)
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Yes, exactly, and thank you for the sympathy! Though I don't feel at all conflicted after seeing the reply to the reply, really. It's too awful for that.
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From:biblauragraphy.wordpress.com
Date:May 16th, 2009 04:00 am (UTC)
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Wow, I'm disappointed to read that quote. I had assumed that later books would address the Native Americans (Native Columbians?) in Wrede's world. If she doesn't like the way Native Americans have been portrayed in other books, why ignore the problem instead of trying to write a portrayal that is as nuanced as the rest of her book?
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From:ejmam
Date:May 16th, 2009 04:23 am (UTC)
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I think adding Native Columbians would not be a small detail, so it would radically change the book. A huge premise of the book is that Columbia is so dangerous that no one could survive there without huge magics, especially ones that draw on several systems of magic.

I'd love to see other books about an America with magic, and books that include real characters from American nations. But I also like the way this "what-if" worked out. From the idea that humans maybe contributed to the extinction of mega-fauna, to the idea that what if the mega-fauna won? How tough would the creatures have to be? Remember, in this book the mammoths and rhinos are the cute, not-so-dangerous creatures.
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From:lady_schrapnell
Date:May 16th, 2009 08:21 am (UTC)
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A huge premise of the book is that Columbia is so dangerous that no one could survive there without huge magics, especially ones that draw on several systems of magic.

Well, quite, but is there any reason only the Avrupa-derived peoples are strong enough magically to cope with the danger? And up until the end, with the revealing of the facts about what the settlers' magic was doing to the system, the magicians out in the settlements were primarily using just the Avrupan magic, right? (Not to mention the Rationalists who were using none.) It was Eff's school lessons which allowed her to see the problem and combine the different systems of magic. Native Columbians, had they turned out to exist, wouldn't *have* to be written as inferior at survival in their own environment!
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From:steepholm
Date:May 16th, 2009 10:28 am (UTC)
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A novel - fantasy or otherwise - that handled the encounter between the first Americans, a few generations out of Asia, and the native megafauna, could actually be quite awesome. It seems from the Tor discussion that Wrede actually had the idea for this book after being introduced to Walking with Beasts by Jo Walton, a series that dramatized just such a meeting, so it's not as if the idea hadn't been presented to her. The decision to recast Europeans in this exploratory role was a deliberate one.
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From:ejmam
Date:May 16th, 2009 04:22 pm (UTC)
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I was thinking of the Great Barrier spell, which was what allowed the settlements to happen. It provided a steady base of support for all the settlements (even the Rationalists). Many settlements on their own died out; it's not at all clear that the toehold could be held without it. People would definitely still be much farther east without it. The really dangerous stuff seems to be west, especially near the Rockies.
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From:lady_schrapnell
Date:May 17th, 2009 12:18 pm (UTC)
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But even in the perspective of the book, the view of the land as uninhabitable without the white, European magic - including the Great Barrier spell - is that of the white, European magicians, whose understanding of how magic is affecting the eco-system is shown to be partial at best.

Of course, the main issue anyway is that the cool idea of having the megafauna still around (and magic) was done here *by* eliminating the 'problem' of Indians through erasing them altogether. (To be very clear, the use of the term 'the problem' to describe Native Americans is Wrede's.) Had she kept the basic geography of the world similar and played with the different creatures inhabiting continents while changing all the world's populations completely, it could have been wonderful.
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From:lady_schrapnell
Date:May 16th, 2009 08:05 am (UTC)
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Exactly. It's particularly shocking to hear a line of reasoning that goes "this group of people has been badly stereotyped in the past so I'll do away with the 'problem' by erasing them" from an author with such wonderful, stereotype-breaking imagination. I'm glad I wasn't the only one assuming that about the later books.
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From:steepholm
Date:May 16th, 2009 10:23 am (UTC)
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I've since seen someone single out a quotation from earlier in that same rec.arts.sf.composition thread, that's even more egregious in some ways:

"I'm currently assuming there will be African slaves, possibly even more
(since there won't be any Native Americans to have already done a certain
amount of prepping land for human occupation, nor to be exploited later)."

What are the implications of describing the Native Americans as "prepping land for human occupation"? Who's "human" in that sentence? It just gets depressinger.
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From:tobu_ishi
Date:July 30th, 2009 02:41 am (UTC)
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Well, current research does indicate that the American Indians had rich, diverse cultures on both continents, most of them in some way constantly landscaping the world around them either for established agriculture or to better facilitate their hunter/gather economies.

The myth of the Unspoiled Wilderness available for the taking of the manifestly destined white explorer was just that--a myth. The "settlers" were just conquering and squatting on thousands of miles of long-established, well-cared-for farming property.

Not defending any of the rest of that comment, though, or assuming that that's what they were referring to in the first place.
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From:steepholm
Date:July 31st, 2009 01:30 pm (UTC)
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Well, quite. I didn't mean to suggest that the Native Americans left the landscape unchanged, only that there's something dodgy in phrasing it as it that amounted to preparing it for the advent of human beings!
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From:tobu_ishi
Date:July 31st, 2009 10:56 pm (UTC)
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Oof, yes. Extremely questionable, not to mention creepy as anything--disenfranchising "just" infuriates me, but dehumanizing is downright alarming. ._.
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From:sartorias
Date:May 16th, 2009 04:36 am (UTC)
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O dear o dear.
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From:lady_schrapnell
Date:May 16th, 2009 08:06 am (UTC)
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I know.
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From:asakiyume
Date:May 21st, 2009 12:06 pm (UTC)
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Did read this entry earlier, but there's so much that could be said, on the one hand, and on the other, not much that I can say, not having read the book. I thought joycemocha's two-part ruminations (here and here) were quite interesting. (Wasn't able to say much over at her journal either!)

One thought that keeps running through my head, regarding worldbuilding when the model is our own world, here, rather than one you're creating out of wholecloth, is that I'm not sure how possible it is to make a sweeping change like saying that no people ever crossed over the land bridge from Asia and came into the new world. I feel as if the interaction of people with land over thousands of years has significance beyond the significance Wrede seems to have accorded it. What I mean is: people lived in the Americas for thousands of years. The land knows them, the animals know them--and they know the land. Taking them out of the picture seems as damaging to the overall world and how it has grown as, say, suggesting that there's an inland ocean in North America and no Rocky Mountains--if you're going to make changes of that nature, why not simply start from scratch?

But that's a question about what you decide before you write the story. It's interesting to read people's reactions to the story itself--yours, joycemocha's, etc.
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From:lady_schrapnell
Date:May 21st, 2009 02:01 pm (UTC)
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Yes, as sartorias said in her post yesterday, it's very odd being able to see the discussions about the decisions as they were being made (only after the fact, for me at least). (Okay, she didn't say it was odd, but was talking about the changing relationship between writer and reader due to internet and mentioned the book in that context!) I agree about the simply starting from scratch idea too, and like the way you've put it about the land knowing them as well as their knowing the land.

Also liked joycemocha's thoughts, though she was coming at the book from a different set of previous-reading expectations, I guess. rj_anderson also had an interesting post, from more of a writerly pov.
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From:asakiyume
Date:May 21st, 2009 07:38 pm (UTC)

long-winded for a comment...

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Yes, joycemocha was looking for frontier fantasy, in particular--a concept that intrigued me (had never thought about it until I read her entry, but I like the idea).

rj_anderson's was also interesting, though I find myself distracted and made anxious by the penitent tone--I prefer penitence and humility to arrogance, but I guess in the end I realize I just don't like the white end of racefail discourse at all. I'm interested in hearing about the reactions and feelings of people of color (in rj_anderson's post, there was a link to an article by Mitali Perkins, and I was quite interested in that), but all the white reactions make me want to turn off the Internet--and that's pretty much regardless of where they fall on the spectrum of types of response.

One thing I was interested in in Mitali Perkins's essay was her mention of white-cued descriptions--like cheeks flushing. If you're noticing cheeks flushing, then the character becomes white, even if you don't explicitly say so. I had just been thinking of that very fact the other day as I was musing on how much we describe characters and what our shorthand says. In Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's Palace of Illusions, she describes a character as having an almonds-and-cream complexion, which simultaneously conveys the privilege accorded to pale skin casts and yet shows that the overall hue isn't caucasian (pale gold brown as opposed to pink).
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From:lady_schrapnell
Date:May 22nd, 2009 08:42 am (UTC)

Re: long-winded for a comment...

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Skin tone can be tricky all round, can't it? I have rosacea, AKA 'the curse of the Celts', so cheeks flushing is mine. And yet in my ex's family (Mexican American) one SIL had colouring almost identical to mine (eyes brown to my hazel-brown) and ended up being even more sensitive to the sun than I am. It would have been very difficult to give or read cues based on physical description which would have distinguished us.

I've been thinking about this because in the book I'm reading (Betwixt) of the three main characters one is Native American and another just got the odd 'caramel-colored' skin description until well over half-way through, when she said 'I'm black!' and I really wondered what the author was doing - expecting readers to be surprised because it hadn't come up before and her parents were super-successful and wealthy or just not bothering to state it as a fact until the plot necessitated it... (I have no answer to this question, so will stop the meandering!)
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From:niamh_sage
Date:May 21st, 2009 09:04 pm (UTC)
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I feel as if the interaction of people with land over thousands of years has significance beyond the significance Wrede seems to have accorded it. What I mean is: people lived in the Americas for thousands of years. The land knows them, the animals know them--and they know the land. Taking them out of the picture seems as damaging to the overall world and how it has grown as, say, suggesting that there's an inland ocean in North America and no Rocky Mountains--if you're going to make changes of that nature, why not simply start from scratch?

aquaeri makes a similar point from an Australian perspective. It explains why (for me, anyway) reading about this comes with an almost physical reaction, which is in response to the notion of a whole people being ripped out of their land by the roots.

(Over here from Linkspam, by the way.)
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From:asakiyume
Date:May 21st, 2009 09:44 pm (UTC)
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Thanks for that link--the quote she has from Penny Tripcony says it so well, about the oneness of land and people.
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From:niamh_sage
Date:May 21st, 2009 09:55 pm (UTC)
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Yes, and in one of the pieces linked from there, she also talks about how Europeans just don't "get" the oneness with the land, because their own relationship with the land has been adversarial, where they try to dominate and tame it instead of having a relationship with it. In that context, the history of European relations with indigenous peoples is even more horrifying. I so wish I'd known about this point of view when I was writing my Master's thesis.

Edited to fix nonsensical sentence.

Edited at 2009-05-21 09:56 pm (UTC)
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From:lady_schrapnell
Date:May 22nd, 2009 01:00 pm (UTC)
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Thanks for coming over from Linkspam!

The links you posted are interesting, and definitely a good description of the type of connection with the land that's at question here. I think the 'they' in 'they can’t understand the concept of being part of the land' might perhaps be better defined as the non-indigenous peoples in Australia or even the part of Australia of which she's speaking rather than simply 'Europeans'.
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From:niamh_sage
Date:May 22nd, 2009 09:40 pm (UTC)
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Good point. I used Europeans in this case because they were the ones that had first contact with the indigenous peoples, and as far as I know, did the most damage. I'm embarrassed to admit, I don't actually know how other non-European immigrants have interacted with indigenous Australians.
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From:elfwreck
Date:May 21st, 2009 06:34 pm (UTC)
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This post has been included in a linkspam roundup.
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From:lady_schrapnell
Date:May 22nd, 2009 08:29 am (UTC)
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Thanks! That's quite a resource.
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