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13th child by Patricia Wrede

May 24th, 2009 (11:30 pm)

I've just read 13th child by Patricia Wrede. It's a tightly written book, well thought up in every way, about growing up in a land full of magic. It's an alternate history also, and the centre of something of a controversy because the main venue is "North Columbia", a North America where English speaking settlers are in the process of colonizing a land where there are absolutely no Amerindians in sight.

Wrede has been criticized for having written a novel where all of the Amerindians have been "pre-empted" by having never left Asia thousands of years before. But it doesn't say so in the novel. It's a sad fact that there are so many novels set in the U.S. where Amerindians are never taken into account or even mentioned that if Wrede hadn't said, on the Web, that she had set up a North America with no Amerindians in it I would never have noticed it.

Since English isn't my mother tongue one of the really important things for me is that she's also "pre-empted" all of the Spanish and Portuguese explorers and settlers. There is no mention of them in the story while there is a mention of South America having been quite successfully settled by people from Africa. And of course the French colonies of North America, which were the original "block" to U.S. colonial expansion, to the North and to the West, are totally nonexistent, having been pre-empted in a similar fashion. It's all English-speaking settlers everywhere, with not a sign of the Spanish, Portuguese and French languages. Up to now I haven't heard a single voice criticizing Wrede for this. This doesn't surprise me because U.S. science fiction authors and U.S. alternate history authors have been doing this for more than sixty years and critics have been traditionally narrow-minded when picking out the nits.

Yet, Wrede is very much aware of other cultures and while she does simplify things, as past U.S. SF authors have done repeatedly, she takes a great deal of trouble to integrate into the story the idea of a multiplicity of ideas and traditions across the globe.

When I first heard of the controversy I wondered how Wrede dealt with the question of what happened to those Asians who didn't cross over to the Americas, and how she dealt with Asians in general. From what I could read through the critics it seemed that she just brushed them off. But no! She doesn't! While she has no need to delve in the entire alternate history of "her" Earth, she does make a crucial element out of the existence of Asian culture and an Asian magical tradition. In her heroine's world that Asian tradition of magic-making is part of the great triad of European, African and Asian magical traditions.

So, OK, Asians never went across the Pacific to the Americas, but on the other hand they didn't huddle in caves for thousands of years while the Europeans marched on to greater and greater knowledge of magic theory and practice. The Asians developed their own approach to magic and according to legend their great sorcerers were the ones responsible for driving the great dragons out of Asia and Europe, centuries ago. Also, when the heroine needs to put her nascent magical powers in check her teacher (a very savvy black woman, well versed in the three great magical traditions/cultures) shows her how to use an auto-disciplinary technique developed by Asian magicians.

If Wrede is to be denounced then about 90 % of all U.S. SF authors should be vigorously denounced for their cultural simplifications. Wrede should be praised for being a lot more open to other cultures than is usual in U.S. SF novels.


Posted by: Alain (ndgmtlcd)
Posted at: May 25th, 2009 09:13 pm (UTC)
Re: here via linkspam

At first I was repulsed by the size of the families (6, 7, 10-12 children or more) and the fact that women are expected to marry and produce children, above any other consideration while men can go off and do all kinds of things. It reminded me too much of Quebec society before the big shift in the 1960s, and that reminder is enough to make me feel bad about anything, even when the writing is good.

On the other hand, Wrede is describing a 19th century North American society and that's how things really were. There isn't much room for a female heroine to be "proactive" in that kind of context but Wrede does seize every occasion, every possible exception for her heroine to actually do something instead of getting carried along by family and society.

A few months ago I read "Alanna: The First Adventure" by Tamora Pierce because I was intrigued by the series. In it the heroine is a lot more "proactive" than in Wrede's book. But while Pierce didn't repulse me by throwing the sorry lot of medieval women in my face, right at the beginning, it was still there in the background. Her heroine was in a more complicated rebellion against the strictures of society than Wrede's heroine, but it was still a question of working within bounds, of still respecting family and traditions while finding yourself.

Posted by: Stella Omega (dharma_slut)
Posted at: May 26th, 2009 04:42 am (UTC)
Re: here via linkspam

Thanks for the answer, it's very much appreciated. I do feel as if I need to read the thing, for my own analysis. Figure out how not to do it, or something.

Posted by: Alain (ndgmtlcd)
Posted at: May 26th, 2009 05:20 am (UTC)
Re: here via linkspam

Then please do read Pierce's "Alanna: The First Adventure" too. It's a slim book, with the same teen demographic target. You might also find in there a way to figure out what not to do, and sometimes, what to do. Personally, I find that comparing the two can be instructive, even if they were written 25 years apart.

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