Thirteenth Child by Patricia C. Wrede
Scholastic Press, 2009.
I was almost finished reading Patricia C. Wrede’s Thirteenth Child when I noticed the book spine. Under the title the spine reads “Frontier Magic – Book One.” <deep sigh> This realization came after I was telling the husband that I was actually reading something not part of a series. Sure, there are 14 children in the family, let alone all the cousins and outside-the-family characters, but I didn’t feel like I was being set up for a series. The feeling was more: what a great premise and direction, a great world with fun potential for further exploration, etc. Not having to run out for or wait anxiously for the next book in a series is refreshing. Yes, I want to read the next book whenever it is to come out, but I am still able to enjoy this one book.
For a first book in a series, it isn’t belabored with setting and explanation. It is 344 pages but it moves quickly and easily. The protagonist Francine “Eff” Rothmer is five at the beginning and near 18 by book’s end. The pace is enjoyable, not a rush but smooth progressions. The narrative, a first person narration by an older Eff, moves us through her earlier ages with important insights and humor. The story does slow near the end, and yet you feel there should be more considering how light the back cover is to hold. Publisher’s Weekly comments on the ending with: “the climax is slow to come and lacks the payoff readers will crave after years of Eff’s meekness and playing the role as observer in her own life.” I have to agree. I wasn’t displeased in that I felt everything ruined, but the denouement that I’d been reading towards lacked a breathlessness. The resolution of Eff’s conflicts, the one’s that form her as a character could not be solved in a single book, but the climax of this Book One is the turning point. She is capable of moving forward, and you can see all kinds of changes, lovely ones for her, even without needing the author to provide them. It ended well enough.
Wrede writes series, and is seen as successful with it; Thirteenth Child is the first of her books I’ve read.
The publisher’s comments say this as introduction (marketing):
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.
Yes, Rowling’s name yet again. It will delight her fans though. It will delight any fan of fantasy. Describing the setting and situations and my husband smiled and said it made him think of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, and the birth placement aspect and Great Barrier had Sean citing Terry Goodkind’s works and his latest The Law of Nines.
The alternate history of westward expansion is fun and charming and well-imagined. There are also enough strange elements that create a unique realm within the familiarity of frontier stories like Wilder’s.
The author’s characters are nice and none-too-cliche. And I had to appreciate that the heroinne has a mother who is realized and proactive. If you read enough you notice the rarity of a presence of parents, especially parent who is the same gender as the hero. Wrede also doesn’t rush a romance or weigh our Eff down with the dramatics of such entanglements: this, also, is refreshing. She doesn’t parallel Eff’s coming into her magical powers with that of her sexual powers/awareness. Nor is Eff’s worth validated in this way. The transitions are in how she views herself, not how other’s view her. Only at the end do characters, developed or fringe, look at her differently, but that is circumstantial and at the very end, and is superfluous. The constancy of the characters around Eff’s changing realizations is a nice part of the story.
There are thought provoking ideas, conversations, in Thirteenth Child. The most apparent is: does the placement of your birth predict your outcome–unerringly inform you? Not just birth order, either. Does where you were born matter? In some ways, the story says Yes while simultaneously saying No. Though Eff may be 13th she may not be unlucky, her twin, the seventh son of a seventh son seems to fulfill the expectation that he would be naturally powerful and gifted in magic. Both were born in this new place, not the place of their ancestors, a character reminds Eff near the story’s end, does that figure in? Wash seems to ask (“You’re Columbian, Miss Rothmer, bred and borne. As is Mr. Graham here, and your talented brother, and even myself, though some might prefer it otherwise” (316).). “We’re still inventing ourselves,” the frontiersman goes on to say (317). Themes of a new country, a new frontier; and their influence on predominant and older cultural ideas of predetermination.
The suggestion that perspective makes a difference and may be of vital importance to the success of a person and even a society (and their/its survival) is an overriding theme. There are more than one practices/perspectives of magic in Wrede’s world; there are three. The other (lesser practiced in their society) do not hold to the same perspectives on birth order. What could this mean for Eff? Does it mean anything?
Another admonition regarding holding perspective: “How can you know [Avrupan magic] is the best, if you don’t learn anything else?” [Eff] said” (53). The author challenges you to put any belief or idea in place of [Avrupan magic].
The book’s view of nature, of the wild and domestic, and the invasions on both sides make this a good source for the literary EcoCriticism. That the society is patriarchal is fodder for many discussions of the feminist/gender perspective. Eff is also a seventh daughter; she is first born twin; she is often restricted in knowledge and potential; etc.
The discussion of the use of magic versus none is a really good aspect to the story. Both Spells and Rationality appear to require ingenuity, and are both tools to be engineered in order to find use and efficiency within society and survival. In a book filled with the wonder of magic is the suggestion that wonder, too, can be found in the ingenuity of those who wouldn’t use magic to find success and pleasure in their pursuits.
I like the fantasy steeped in concerns of human nature and culture. Thirteenth Child is a fun exploration of complex ideas with an amusing narrator. When Publisher’s Weekly used “meekness” in reference to Eff, they chose well. Our narrator is in a pitiable position with none of the wallowing or self-possessed entitlement whining. Eff is “an observer of her own life,” as Publisher’s Weekly points out, and as the book relates. She is formed by her environment, held and shaped by it; however helpless is a question; a question she can only answer as an observer. All that plays into her resides in the world around her, and she falls into the kind of state she learns from her teacher, Mrs. Ochiba; the “world-sensing.”
You will enjoy Eff I hope; but I know you will enjoy Wrede.