OK, so right now I'm waffling about whether to read Patricia Wrede's new book, The Thirteenth Child. The book takes place in an alt-North American frontier, a land in which there are still mammoths and other megafauna, and in which the North American continent was not settled by people at all until the European-equivalent folk got there; no one ever came across the Bering Land Bridge because it was blocked by magic.
Now, upon first glance at this premise, my immediate reaction is a wince and a twitch. Actually, that's my second-glance reaction, too. And most of my debate over whether to read the book is whether I have the time and energy to see whether it's possible for the worldbuilding to overcome the massive, huge, really problematic problems with that premise.
When I mentioned said premise in conversational passing today to somebody, I found myself having to explain the problems, from the core out; and I know several other people who for good and valid reasons, such as having been raised in a different country, didn't notice them.
Basically, in my opinion this premise, unless done extremely carefully and with very thorough worldbuilding-- which it is possible this book may have done; as I said, I have not yet decided whether to read it-- this contributes to the general absence, the silencing, the Othering, the general disappearing from popular culture and the self-defined mainstream of First Nations peoples.
So far I do not think I have said anything that hasn't been said on this topic before. This has been summary. What I want to explain now is why my wince and twitch were so thorough and profound and immediate. I can do this best, I think, by explaining the effects that the way First Nations in the US are treated and discussed has had on my life here, growing up in this country.
Now, I am not a member of any of the First Nations. I'm white. People who are native to this continent know far, far more about this than I do, and have to live with it in ways I know perfectly well I cannot comprehend. I can't tell you about what it's like to be part of the people damn near wiped out. I can tell you what it is like to be a person several generations on who was born to the group who did the wiping out, and who lived in an area where that had happened fairly recently.
I have been, throughout this entry, using the phrase First Nations, which is as far as I can tell a respectful term to use for these peoples. I did not hear this term until I had already graduated college. I did not hear the term Native American, except from co-religionists who were anti-racism workers, until high school. I heard Indian. No tribal distinctions really discussed.
I was born in a small town in Ohio in which, every year, for many years, there was a festival commemorating the defeat and driving from the area of the local Shawnee. With re-enactors. And anniversarial celebration.
I lived for many years near the junction of the Olentangy and Scioto rivers. Whenever I asked anyone what the names of the rivers meant, I was told 'it's an Indian name'. When I said I know that, I want to know what it means, nobody knew. Somebody may know, or they may not. The people who live there mostly don't.
All of this is when it actually came up, that there were people there before. Most of the time, the vast majority, it never did, but it shows in the following way: the land has no history.
The first time I saw a map of England with a scale marker, I was genuinely confused. How could so many things so close together all have individual names? It seemed as though every stream, road, boundary marker, every hill larger than a couple of rocks, every little clump of trees had a name that people knew and used. Not a county road number, name scrawled on a map somewhere that nobody cared about, or simple lack of name. I played in four different streams near my childhood houses, and if any of them ever had names, no one near them ever knew them. By the standards of the English map, all of them would have been actual rivers. And named.
The first time I went to Europe, the sense of history shocked and frightened me. Venice, the guide said, had been a great power for a thousand years. A thousand years? But history goes back about two hundred in the country in general, and about one hundred fifty in my town. There's a plaque on the old courthouse that says when the city was founded. Before that, well, who knows? Not me. Not my teachers. The Historical Society had a diorama of the Forest Primeval, but that was rather farther back. The idea that a person might be able to know who lived in a particular spot five hundred years ago was a part of fantasy novels to me when I was a child. It was out of Tolkien. Literally.
The older I got, the weirder it seemed. I know the colors of underwear owned by the principal mistresses of Louis XIV, a king of a country I have barely been to in a time utterly remote from my own, and I have no idea whether another human being ever lived on the spot on which I was born, and if so what they were like? How out-of-joint is that? But so it is.
And I told myself for years, well, America is a young country, it's only two centuries, the time will build up and we will accumulate these things, the names and histories, though I won't live to see it. It will be all right, this gap will eventually go away, this feeling of unrootedness, this not knowing what was here.
And then, and I don't know how I came to this realization, possibly because of spending a lot of time with all those anti-racist activists, I noticed: it's not that the land has no history. It's that that history was deliberately removed, covered over, and obliterated. These streams have names. I will never know them. Someone may have lived on the spot of my childhood house. I am never going to know. No one living can tell me. And this was intentional. I was born in a town where for many years they outright celebrated the final driving away of the people who knew, which happened the year of the founding of the town. They started over, clean. America. The New-Found Land. A completely new beginning, except for the fact of everything that had already happened, but nobody was going to talk about that.
I really think the lack of history explains a lot about this country. I mean, one of the quintessential American genres of movie is the road-trip movie, where you have forced character bonding through the fact that they are forced to spend time together in a car through all those miles and miles and miles of-- empty space. You can't do this in countries where every single thing has a name. Something historical is bound to intrude on you. Something outside yourselves is liable to break in.
So, I turned to fiction, as one does, to help me understand my country's roots and lack of them, and I turned to science fiction and fantasy, because I am me. And there is some. I really kind of hate to recommend him for anything, but Orson Scott Card's Alvin Maker books, and Pastwatch, are actively and complexly engaging with this. (Pastwatch in particular is an impressive guilty pleasure and cri de coeur: NO SERIOUSLY TIME MACHINE TO CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS AND MAKE IT ALL BETTER-- and the happy ending of that book is a bitter laugh at how much worse our version of the world is than the one they win.) And we have Judith Berman, and Molly Gloss (if you haven't read Wild Life, go now, I'll wait), and dammit why are all these writers white, again? Anyway these books helped. Not much, but they have ways of thinking about, mythologizing, understanding, beating against what we don't understand. And in other fiction, and non-fiction, I read First Nations authors, because I know I don't understand.
And then I looked at the premise of the Wrede and the thought that passed through my head, verbatim, was 'OH GOD IT'S A BOOK THAT DOESN'T REMEMBER THIS COUNTRY HAS A HISTORY OH GOD NOT ANOTHER ONE'. Because if I'm tired of that, I can't imagine how it must be for people who have to deal with this all the damn time, and with the things that can be done to you when everyone is trying to forget that you exist.
I titled this post an historical redux: the past reduced. Lessened.
It is possible that the Wrede isn't that book. I will probably read it to see whether it is. I hope it isn't. But that premise, it is not very promising.