Friday, June 19, 2009

Patricia Wrede's thinking as she wrote THE THIRTEENTH CHILD

For some time now, I've wondered about the correspondence that takes place between a writer and his/her editor when the author's manuscript has Native content. It could be a main character, or a minor one. It could be setting, or, the story could reference Native history or culture. I cast a broad net. I want to know what they say about that content, if they say anything at all, if there's a pause about it or not. With the Internet, there are opportunties to access a writer's thinking.

Today's post is a look at Patricia Wrede's thoughts as she wrote The Thirteenth Child. Below are excerpts from rec.arts.sf.composition, a Google group about "the writing and publishing of speculative fiction."

The thread from which I'm excerpting the passages is called "Renaming Europe." It was started by Wrede. On rec.arts.sf.composition, Wrede's words are not in italics. I'm presenting them in italics here in order to distinguish them from my words.

Feb. 3, 2006, 10:09 PM
I'm currently in the middle of developing some alternate-history background, for a book set in a very alternate mid-1800s U.S.-equivalent-with-magic, and I find myself wanting very much to have plausible alternative names for "Europe," England/Britain," "France," "Holland/The Netherlands," "Spain," and possibly a few other major European countries, preferrably ones that haven't been over-used already (like "Albion" for England), but at least some of which are more-or-less recognizeable (like "Albion" and "Gaul" and "Hispania"). I don't have enough linguistic or historical background to get away from the really obvious myself, so...suggestions? Brian, Zeborah, anybody?

Someone asked her "is there also an important historical difference, like alternative origins of the first European settlers?" To this, she said:

Feb 3, 2006, 11:36 PM
The current plan is to have the primary difference before 1492 be that the various pre-historic attempts to colonize the Americas were unsuccessful; thus, no Mayans, Incas, Aztecs, Mississippi Valley civilization, or Native Americans of any sort. Up to that point, I expect differences in Europe, Africa, and Asia will be due mainly to this world having magic, and I expect to wiggle things so that things are moderately close to Real Life history. The absence of an indiginous population in the Americas is obviously going to have a significant impact on the way things develop during the exploration and colonization period, and I'm still feeling my way through how I'm going to finagle that to get to where I want.

Which is, basically: 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 (mammoths, wooly rhinocerouses, terror birds, dire wolves, dragons [what else would prey on mammoths and wooly rhinos?]). The U.S. was settled and had a successful revolution and a civil war, but the westward expansion has been slower and stalled for a while at the Mississippi for various reasons. Nobody has yet mapped all the way to the Pacific (I'm thinking of making California an island, the way it was depicted on early maps, but I haven't decided yet); the Lewis and White expedition never came back (no Sacajawea, plus did I mention that the Rockies are a favorite nesting ground for dragons?) East of the Mississippi, the megafauna have mostly been cleared out, especially in settled areas, though the backwoods parts of the country are still pretty dangerous. (Suggestions for place names that can substitute for Indian-language-origin names like Ohio, Chicago, Mississippi, Michigan, etc. are also welcome...)

I know the "feel" I'm after; now I need to work out some plausible backstory
to get me there.

Did you catch that? She said, "A North America in which the threat of Indians was replaced by the threat of un-extinct megafauna." And see what she said in parens? She wanted suggestions for words like Chicago, which are Native words.

Feb 4, 2006, 9:14 AM
The trick, I'm finding, is coming up with names that are sufficiently different, but that don't cause a sort of cognitive dissonance when combined in the same story with names that *would*, very likely, be the same, like Washington and Virginia and Carolina. Of course, I can change those, too, but then I really start to lose the feel I want. It's a delicate balancing act.

Selective erasure! What "feel" is she after?! In the ensuing discussion, someone said "If you nudge history just a little bit in the right place, you'd still have an Angevin Empire." To this, she said:

Feb 4, 2006, 2:38 PM
I don't want to nudge European history until 1492. It's going to be enough trouble to figure out four centuries of alternate history; backing up *another* 500 years or so is more than I really want to do.

Hmmm.... note the use of word "trouble" --- what does that mean? She's willing to mess with our history, but not hers. There was discussion about food, like corn, potatoes, beans... Some angst expressed over not being able to have chocolate, because it was developed by indigenous people. Without indigenous people, no chocolate. As I read through the thread, participants (fellow writers?) in rec.arts.sf.composition were quite engaged with her premise, fleshing it out. So far, nobody saying 'HEY.' As the group talked about names for European countries, someone asked if she wanted the names anglicised, and, asked about the language she would use. She replied:

Feb 5, 2006, 10:32 AM
English, so yes, pretty much anglicised. 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. Not that it'll be all that similar anyway; no writing plan survives contact with the characters, and it's already starting to morph.

I don't have to change *all* the European names, but I really, really, really want an alternative to "England." There are already too many people who want to force the Mairelon books and the Kate and Cecy books and even Caroline's "College of Magics" books to be in the same universe, and I'm *not* going to make it easy for them to stick this book in the same pile.

In that passage, she gives us evidence that she knows about problems with the ways that American Indians are presented. Rather than "trouble" (a word she used earlier in the discussion) herself with working through this, she decided to "eliminate" Indians. She's leery of where people will "stick" her book, but it is not Native readers she's worried about.

Early on, someone asked her about the Aleuts and Eskimos, and then someone said that they'd seen a "programme" (must be a Brit) that traced the Clovis people to France or northern Spain. That individual then said "Skin boats, Inuit technology, they would find the Atlantic no problem. Stone Age people were pretty impressive." To this, Wrede replied:

Feb 5, 2006, 10:44 AM
That's why I abandoned my original idea, which was just to have had no land bridge. There are too many other possible settlement routes for that to account for *no* human presence in the Americas prior to 1492. The current plan is to beef up the nastiness of some of the megafauna, to the point where all previous colonization attempts up to and including the Viking "Vinland" settlement failed because they got trampled or eaten or something. (From my research so far, this won't be all that tough to do...) By 1492+, the combination of magic and technology (i.e., guns) is good enough that people can make headway, though it's still not exactly easy. I may slow down technological development just a tad, on the grounds of that being a side-effect of having magic to do certain things (though I think I could just as easily use that as a justification for speeding up technological advances, if I wanted to. But for this story, I don't want to).

Then, again on the name for England, someone suggested "Angleterre", which is a French word for England, and, the individual said "...using the French name for England would be... _not very British!_ Wrede replied:

Feb 5, 2006, 11:00 AM
Well, yeah, there's that... And I *don't* want to have to change history very much just to get a name.

I take that to mean that she doesn't want to raise the ire of her Brit readers. There was some discussion about calling the Louisiana territory "New Egypt", and an "Alas, there wont [sic] be any Natchez nor mounds to really base an Egypt comparison on." and then, "...assuming that the Euro settlers still import african [sic] slaves, then I can imagine some explicitly Exodus-from-Egypt related gospel lyrics." Wrede's response to that is:

Feb 5, 2006, 11:15 AM
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). I'm speculating that South America (which is outside the scope of the story I'm doing, and therefore wide open for changes) will look *very* different. The Spanish seem to have been initially motivated by all the gold they swiped from the Aztecs; I'm not sure they'd have been as forward about claiming territory and establishing colonies without that. Which means there's room for all sorts of other nations (including maybe some that weren't quite so into seafaring, like the Ottoman Empire) to have New World colonies, which is in turn going to change things back home in Europe...

At this point in her thinking, she needs more African slaves to do the work that Indians had done, and, she needs them to exploit later since the people she's imagining will need to exploit SOMEONE. Someone of color, that is...

Somewhere along the thread, Wrede said that sea serpents make crossing the Pacific difficult for her Europeans, and someone suggested that those same sea serpents could be used to explain why Indians didn't get there via the land bridge. Wrede replies:

Feb 5, 2006, 2:14 pm
I definitely have to do something about migrations, but since they come from both directions (trans-Pacific *and* trans-Atlantic), I think I need to kill them off after they arrive. Unless I want to make Columbus' voyage (and subsequent Atlantic crossings) a whole lot more dangerous than they were, which would interfere *too* much with post-1492 colonization.

She will kill off her sea serpents so they don't interfere with Columbus...

Later, someone suggests having the Indians killed off by disease or parasite. Wrede replies:

Feb. 9, 2006, 4:00 PM
I'm not fond of the disease-or-parasite solution; it raises too many other questions (like why it didn't spread the *other* way across the Bering Straights and depopulate Asia and eventually Africa and Europe -- we're talking around 20,000 years here, remember). Being eaten on arrival is a nice, effective, tidy solution without much in the way of additional complications.

She rejects that suggestion because she wants to be effective and tidy, without complications, and revisits the sea creature possibility, saying:

Feb 9, 2006, 4:00 PM
What I really need, though, is a coastal-water predator, or possibly two, with limited range. One that sticks to cold water, to patrol the Alaska coastline and maybe part of the northern Russian coast, but that won't go far enough south to mess up the development of Japan and the Pacific Islanders; one that sticks to warmer waters, to patrol from about Vancouver down to South America without going around the tip and spreading into the Atlantic. At the least, I want *something* nasty in the California Channel.

A few hours later, she writes:

Feb 9, 2006, 10:08 PM
Of course, the Gold Rush is going to be considerably later and more dangerous in this world...

More dangerous? She must not know much about it and the lives of California's indigenous people during the mad rush of the rush.

From there, the group talked about research sources, discussing merits of Wikipedia, and sharing a lot of information and resources. The thread ended soon after that. Her book came out in the spring of 2009.

Reading through rec.arts.sf.composition, it is clear that Wrede is helpful to others there, participating in discussions, answering questions. It looks to me like a supportive space for writers to work through ideas. All of that is a plus for Wrede. She's a well-established writer helping other writers, and that is terrific.

Given her influence and standing, I wonder how much impact she'd have on the field if she reflected, publicly, on the controversy over her novel? I think there's a lot to learn from it. Learning that could shift the field forward in the United States and elsewhere, too. Her books are translated and sold around the world (an example from her website..." DEALING WITH DRAGONS, first volume in the Chronicles of the Enchanted Forest, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, September, 1990. Children's hardcover. Mass Market
paperback from Scholastic Books, July, 1992. Danish trade paperback edition, DRAGEPRINSESSEN, Gyldendal, 1991. British mass market paperback, DRAGONSBANE, from Scholastic publications, 1993. Swedish hardcover edition PRINSESSA SOKER DRAKE, Raben & Sjogren, 1995. Russian edition, 1996. Finnish edition, ICBS, 2001. French, CENDORINE ET LES DRAGONS, Beyard Jeunesse, 2004. Korean, Daekyo Publishing, 2004. Indonesian, Kaifa for Teens, 2004. Thai, Tuttle-Mori, 2004.
Russian, Azbuka, 2004."

See that? Impressive! There is obviously a huge market for her books. She could really make a difference...

(Note: At the top of this post is a hyperlink to the Google group discussion. I invite you to read the entire discussion. Words are always open to interpretation.)

Thursday, June 18, 2009


Heated debate is taking place over Patricia Wrede's book, The Thirteenth Child. Many people defend her decision to write a "settling the frontier book, only without Indians" story while others, me included, think it was thoughtless or lazy or... you fill in the blank.

In the midst of that heated debate, yesterday's mail included Jennifer Denetdale's The Long Walk: The Forced Navajo Exile, a nonfiction volume aimed at high school students. It is one of the books in Chelsea House's "Landmark Events in Native American History" set.

Here's the opening lines from Denetdale's first chapter, "Who are the Dine?" (Note: The letter e in Dine should have an accent mark over it, but I can't do it in Blogger.)

It is one of those hot summer days when the gathering clouds promise rain but are still too far away to tell if rain will fall. In Window Rock, Arizona, the capital of the Navajo Nation, Dine Tribal Council delegates dressed in a combination of Western and Navajo style clothing begin to fill the chambers for the summer legislative session. (Dine means the People and is the word Navajos call themselves.)

That's a terrific opening for this book! Denetdale's first sentence embraces the reader's senses, inviting that reader to be with her, in that space, as she tells him or her about the Dine and the Long Walk. There are five chapters, followed by a Chronology, Timeline, Notes, Bibliography, and, Further Reading. The latter are all standard items in a work of non-fiction, but what distinguishes Denetdale's book is that the history and life of the Dine is given by someone who knows, on multiple levels, what she's talking about. Denetdale is Dine. And, she's a historian on the faculty at Northern Arizona University. As such, she brings a lived experience and a scholarly perspective to this book. Quoting again from her first chapter:

In the twenty-first century, it might appear that the Dine are no different than other modern Americans who drive to work in their cars, shop at malls for the latest fashions, grab a quick lunch with co-workers at a local fast food restaurant, or, after work, change into Nike sportswear and go for a jog. On the other hand, Navajos struggle with high rates of poverty and unemployment, with all of its accompanying ills such as disease, domestic violence, and homicides. In many ways, the Dine have become accustomed to American culture, for they are just as proud as others to be Americans. Nevertheless, Navajos remain mindful of how their ancestors have left them a powerful legacy, a determination to remain a sovereign people who have land, a still vital language, and a strong cultural identity.

From there, Denetdale talks about Dine origin stories, and, she tells us that these stories differ from theories of non-Navajo archaeologists and anthropologists. She describes Dine contact with the Spanish, and then with the Americans as she talks about manifest destiny and Navajo resistance. She devotes two chapters to the Long Walk, and the Dine's return to their homelands, and finishes with Chapter 5, "Remembering the Long Walk and Hweeldi." Facing the page on which chapter 5 begins is a photograph of an absolutely stunning rug that depicts the Long Walk. In that chapter, Denetdale brings the reader right up to the present day. There is, for example, a photograph of Dine singers (Verdell Primeaux and Johnny Mike) who won a Grammy in 2002 for the best Native American Music Album.

Her final words in the book are the ones with which I'll end this review. Order The Long Walk. It belongs in every school library, and every public library, too. And, listen to her radio interview on "Indigenous Politics: From Native New England and Beyond" about her book, Reclaiming Diné History: The Legacies of Navajo Chief Manuelito and Juanita, and order it, too. Reading The Long Walk gave my day a decidedly different trajectory yesterday, effectively countering the story that Wrede's book tells. Thanks, Jennifer!

The Navajo people have not allowed non-Navajo interpretations of this important event in their history to be controlled by non-Navajos. They have taken initiatives to ensure that Americans do not forget the unjust treatment of native peoples; however, at the same time, they are determined to rise above the nightmare of the past that continues to haunt them and reclaim the vitality of their cultural inheritance. The stories of the Long Walk and Hweeldi and what happened to their people has made the Navajos determined to create a better world for the coming generations.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Among America's exports....

Among America's exports is stereotypical imagery of American Indians. Take, for example, O. Henry's short story, "The Ransom of Red Chief." I wrote about it a few months ago, and, came across it today on the Voice of America (VOA) website.

VOA's purpose? From the website:

The Voice of America, which first went on the air in 1942, is a multimedia international broadcasting service funded by the U.S. Government through the Broadcasting Board of Governors. VOA broadcasts approximately 1,500 hours of news, information, educational, and cultural programming every week to an estimated worldwide audience of 138 million people.

"Voice" - singular. Maybe that's the problem! The page the story is on is designed specifically to help people learn English. Here's an except from the story. You can read the entire thing, or, listen to it read aloud.

That boy put up a fight like a wild animal. But, at last, we got him down in the bottom of the carriage and drove away.

We took him up to the cave. The boy had two large bird feathers stuck in his hair. He points a stick at me and says:

"Ha! Paleface, do you dare to enter the camp of Red Chief, the terror of the plains?"

"He's all right now," says Bill, rolling up his pants and examining wounds on his legs. "We're playing Indian. I'm Old Hank, the trapper, Red Chief's captive. I'm going to be scalped at daybreak. By Geronimo! That kid can kick hard."

Along with learning English, readers/listeners at VOA "learn" a lot about... About... About what O. Henry thought about American Indians. Or playing Indian. Readers/listeners certainly don't learn anything at all about American Indians, but I wonder if they know that?!

Anyway, I am pasting below comments to the story. If you want to see the page they appear, and maybe those that appear later, click here...


I love this story! Thank you, VOA!
Submitted by: Doll (Vietnam)
06-17-2009 - 03:47:03

2. comment

Thank you for letting us audio-read American short stories. However, I found this one a least imaginative and surprisingly unworthy of the name of the author of "The gift of the Magi" and famed VOA. I know there are far many rich American short stories than VOA has to start digging the trash field.
Submitted by: Kazuhiro Nagamitz (Japan)
06-16-2009 - 01:25:49

3. Very funny story

Such a funny story! I expect VOA will give us more stories like this one!
Submitted by: Hai (Vietnam)
06-15-2009 - 14:14:06

4. comment

Thank you for the funny story.I read this story when I was a smal girl/ thank you for good impressions Sv
Submitted by: svetlana (Israel)
06-14-2009 - 12:44:20

5. the ransom of red chief

i think everyone should read this story specially the leaders . this is my first sent to you and i belief that voa is the best
Submitted by: ragab (tripoli libya)
06-14-2009 - 12:33:24

6. A humorous story

Thank you for bringing the good story. But it took me for reading several times to understand the story completely. When I was a senior high school student about 40 years ago. we learned "The gift of the Magi" in the English class. I still remember the story well. We have always something to learn from his short stories. Thank you again for your good service.
Submitted by: H.Mori (Japan)
06-13-2009 - 21:44:50

7. Sunshine after rain

A rollicking and hilarious story which develops in a totally unexpected way. It somehow reminds me of Laurel & Hardy immortal movies. We listeners needed it, after the masterly but heart-rending story by B. Harte told last saturday. And many thanks to Mr. 'O Neal for his superb reading. The clearness and elegance of his pronunciation are astonishing.
Submitted by: gian paolo nardoianni (Italy)
06-13-2009 - 16:51:55

8. english

I want to improve my English.
Submitted by: eh ku (myanmar)
06-13-2009 - 15:09:37

9. The funny story I have ever heard.

I really feel sorry for Bill. He thought kidnapping is easy work to do. First he kidnaps the boy to get some money than he want just to return the boy and he will pay for that. Finally I would like to thank every one especially O, Henry I felt as a true story thank you.
Submitted by: khalid (Iraq)
06-13-2009 - 12:46:49

Hank the Cowdog

Earlier today I had an email from a woman, asking if I'd read the series, Hank the Cowdog. I have not, so checked into it a little.... Here's what I found:

Hank is a ranch dog in charge of security on the ranch. From

Coyotes are the bad guys: Rip, Snort, and -- most feared of all -- Scraunch. They like the freedom of roaming the canyons and forests. Coyotes are an ever present danger to the ranch; and yet, for Hank, there's an irresistible fascination with their devil-may-care lifestyle. In fact, one day, Hank decided to see how life was on the other side of the septic tank:

"About a week after I joined the tribe, I made friends with two brothers named Rip and Snort. They were what you'd call typical good-old-boy coyotes: filthy, smelled awful, not real smart, loved to fight and have a good time, and had no more ambition than a couple of fence posts. If Rip and Snort took a shine to you, you had two of the best friends in the world. If they didn't happen to like your looks or your attitude, you were in a world of trouble. I got along with them."

From Wikipedia and elsewhere, I read that the characters in the series include...

Missy Coyote, a coyote princess. Hank meets her in the first book in the series and has a crush on her. Her name is Girl-Who-Drink-Blood.

Chief Gut, Missy's father. His full name is "Many-Rabbit-Gut-Eat-In-Full-Moon."

Scraunch the Terrible, Missy's brother.

In one of the books, Rip and Snort sing the Coyote Sacred Hymn, "Me Just a Worthless Coyote"

In MURDER IN THE MIDDLE PASTURE, Hank pursues "a gang of wild dogs and a clan of coyotes." He gets caught by "the coyote nation" and faces certain death.

I wonder how the coyote's are drawn? The references to American Indians are undeniable... Some people will blast me for saying "not recommended" when I haven't read the book yet, but right now, my instinct is to say "not recommended."

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Newsletter: Winding Rivers Library System

Earlier this year I visited the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse to talk with teachers and librarians about American Indians in children's literature. I just got an email directing me to a newsletter about the talk. I'm always a bit nervous when I give a lecture, wondering if the audience is hearing me, if I need to restate something... If I'm making sense... Talking too fast... Alienating the audience...

Reading this newsletter feels terrific. Marcia Sarnowski, its author, understood the points I was making. If I could draw myself waving at her, I'd do it. She is with the Winding Rivers Library System. Thank you, Marcia, for writing up the session, and sharing it with readers of your newsletter. The logo shown here is from their website.