Imagine what the settling of the West would have been like if, along with hunger, drought, and malaria, the settlers also had to deal with dragons. Patricia Wrede’s Thirteenth Child is a sort of a magical version of Little House on the Prairie. Eff is the titular thirteenth child, which means she is a beacon of bad luck and will curse all those around her as she ages. Her twin brother Lan is a seventh son of a seventh son, which traditionally means that he will be incredibly lucky and magically powerful. When she’s four years old and Eff’s uncle accuses her of cursing his house, her family moves to the frontier, where her father has accepted a position as a professor of magic at a new land grant university.
This is an engaging tale. Having grown up in a large family with a wide range of ages, I can say that the family dynamic rings true. In a world where everyone can do magic, Wrede creates three separate systems of magic with different strengths, purposes, and rules for each, and speculates about the emergence of a fourth. She also has created the Rationalists, a group that rejects the use of all magic, and a wide range of new and interesting animals (swarming weasels, anyone?) that make a familiar landscape seem foreign and strange.
My biggest criticism has to do with the concept of the Thirteenth Child. We’re told that the thirteen child is unlucky, but we’re not really told why. There are lots of historical figures that are turned into powerful magicians in this story — Plato, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson spring to mind — but we’re not given a similar historical grounding for why thirteenth children are unlucky. Miss Ochiba, the teacher of magic at the local school, explains that being thirteenth is only unlucky in the Avrupan system of magic (Avrupan is European) that is the predominate understanding of magic by her family, but in the other systems of magic (Aphrikan or Hijero-Cathayan — African or Asian) there are different ways of seeing who she is, beyond just being the thirteenth child. This is the underlying theme of the novel — that there are different ways of seeing, and the more ways you can see an object, the more you understand about it, which is key to solving the problems the settlers undergo at the end of the novel. All this adds up to a source of conflict that fizzles out without much impact on the story.
There is a lot of controversy about Wrede’s choice to write a tale about the settling of an American West that doesn’t include Native Americans. I understand why people might think that excluding Native Americans contributes to the “white-washing” of American history, but I encourage readers to give Wrede the benefit of the doubt. In the Thirteenth Child, Wrede informs us that the First Peoples never crossed the Bering Land Bridge because they were too busy fighting dragons in Asia. She has thoughtfully considered the changes to European (and in this novel, African) colonization of the American continents that might have occurred if the Native Americans had not been here — and those changes make a very different American West than existed historically.
I enjoyed Thirteenth Child, and am looking forward to future books in the series, assuming that after the firestorm this first novel ignited that there will be a publisher for future installments.
Frontier Magic — (2009-2012) Young adult. Publisher: Eff was born a thirteenth child. Her twin brother, Lan, is the seventh son of a seventh son. This means he’s supposed to possess amazing talent — and she’s supposed to bring only bad things to her family and her town. Undeterred, her family moves to the frontier, where her father will be a professor of magic at a school perilously close to the magical divide that separates settlers from the beasts of the wild. With wit and wonder, Patricia Wrede creates an alternate history of westward expansion that will delight fans of both J. K. Rowling and Laura Ingalls Wilder.