Eff, born the unlucky thirteenth child of her large family, is the somewhat troublingly meek protagonist of Patricia Wrede’s The Thirteenth Child. Exploring an emblematically American frontier filled with magic, mythological/prehistoric beasts, and an encroaching enchanted wilderness that her generation will be called upon to combat, Eff struggles to cope with the stigma of her birth, as well as the shadow cast upon her by a magically talented twin brother. After the family is relocated to a growing university town near the Great Barrier, built to keep the dangerous but alluring wilderness at bay, Eff finds herself in that opportunistic space between civilization and wildness where she can begin to develop her hidden talents.
The book has received a lot of attention in the blog-o-sphere this year on the topic of Wrede’s erasure of native populations in her fantasy retelling of the American frontier story. From what I’ve read, these incensed readers offer more of a general critique than a textual one (that is, there isn't a lot of actual close reading that illustrates how colonial or possibly racist themes are played out in the writing), but I do agree with the underlying sentiment, which is that Wrede makes a huge misstep in failing to acknowledge the much more troubling American story that lies beneath Eff’s New World. Wrede’s fantasy, while frequently funny and occasionally enthralling, relies on the American fantasy, or on the erasure of parts of the American story that are ugly, cruel, devastating, and deeply important to remember. Unfortunately, Wrede’s world building suffers as a result of this removal, and the story feels a little plain despite all of Wrede’s storytelling magic.
The Thirteenth Child
by Patricia Wrede
Scholastic Press, April 2009