The Thirteenth Child, by Patricia Wrede, is a flawed story. I read it because I was troubled by others judging it solely by a summary of its premise, and I read another of Wrede's books (Dealing With Dragons) before commenting. Several reviews summed it up as "Harry Potter meets Little House" -- or this review on books4yourkids.com that describes it as "Diana Wynne Jones meets Laura Ingalls Wilder." Comparisons to Orson Scott Card's Alvin Maker books are also inevitable. It is a coming of age, with young Eff Rothmer growing from age five to sixteen. She goes with her family to the frontier and learns about magic there, and ends up having an adventure.
I'd agree that it is trying to emulate some of the feel of Laura Ingalls Wilder. However, I feel it tells a bad lesson to young adults in doing so, and I would not recommend this book for young readers.
I do not inherently oppose the idea of an alternate history where the Americas were not colonized until the 16th century -- any more than I oppose the idea of an alternate history where Hitler won, or a future where humanity is devastated by world war. However, Wrede isn't trying to explore what America would really be like without American Indians. She is trying to emulate the feel of Laura Ingalls Wilder, while avoiding the ethical problems of colonialism. In her history, the United States is still independent -- with initial presidents Washington, Adams, and Jefferson leading the country; and a Lewis and Clark expedition under Jefferson, though it never returned. These are the only historical figures she cites are these. There was also a Secession War, in 1838 that ended slavery.
She avoids obvious gaffs such as the myriad of American Indian place names -- so the Mississippi is instead called the Mammoth River, for example. There is no mention of foods like potatoes, corn, chocolate, or peanuts -- or mention of tobacco or smoking. She makes no mention of pilgrims, or any mention of South America, Mexico, or Canada. However, this just makes it more problematic. Without Aztecs and their gold, Mexico and the Carribean would be vastly different. Without the fur trade, Canada would be vastly different. Without the Nauset, the original Plymouth Colony would most likely have failed. However, her view as expressed in these book is that all of these were inconsequential. There is no sense that white America is missing anything from the lack of indians.
Now, Wrede does make an effort to be multi-cultural. However, that effort is also problematic. Young Eff has a black schoolteacher, Miss Ochiba, who teaches her about the difference between Avrupan, Aphrikan, and Hijero-Cathayan magic (i.e. European, African, and East Asian). However, the characters, including Miss Ochiba, speak of these in different terms. They speak of the great Ben Franklin and his achievements, along with the wise ancients Plato, Socrates, and Pythagoras. They also list presidents Washington, Adams, and Jefferson as well as explorers Lewis and Clark. However, there is no mention of any famous Aphrikans, Aphrikan-Americans, or Hijero-Cathayans. The single mention of a non-white figure in history is a passing comment that great Thomas Jefferson mentioned a (fictional) Hamid al-Rashid, but no one was sure who he was talking about because other magicians hadn't read four thousand or so books the way he had. Instead of characters, Hijero-Cathayan and Aphrikan magic are described as fundamentally different approaches to dealing with the world -- along with their strengths and weaknesses.
To start with, having a black grade-school teacher who teaches Eff the secrets of Aphrikan magic runs straight into the magic negro archetype, paired with Wash Morris -- the helpful explorer who tells her about the wildlife and gives her a magical talisman. The descriptions of the different magics echo too closely old ideas of racial essentialism. The Oriental Hijero-Cathayans lack individualism but can be powerful in large groups, while Aphrikans are close to nature and work with it instead of against it. [*]
While I am condemning this, I do want to make clear something. It would have been easily possible for Wrede to write a fantasy story set on a version of the American frontier with no non-white characters at all, and simply avoid significant mention of Indians. Doing so would probably have brought less comment than her book did, but would have been at least as problematic. I do want to give some credit to her effort to be multi-cultural. However, much of this is very simple.
Eliminating all American Indians is a huge change, and if you are going to do that, the changes should be noticeable and explored -- not hidden from view. If you are just trying to imitate the frontier settlement genre, then don't choose so divergent a history. If you are going to have a black schoolteacher teaching African magic, you should mention some non-white historical figures instead of only waxing on about the great Socrates, Plato, Pythagoras, Ben Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson.
[*] The following is the description of the contrasting types of magic from the book, from page 200 of the hardback edition. It comes across to me very much as an essentialist description of cultures, but you can judge for yourself.
"Aphrikan maigc isn't much like Avrupan magic, or even Hijero-Cathayan magic. Avrupan magic is individual. Even when teams of magicians work together on something, they do it by each casting one particular spell that fits together with all the other spells, like the teeth on a set of gears fit each other. If one magician gets it wrong and his piece fizzles or it blows up, the big spell doesn't work, but it doesn't hurt any of the other magicians or affect their magic. Still, you have to be very precise to work as part of a team of Avrupan magicians, because nobody wants to waste all that effort just because someone else got it wrong.
Hijero-Cathayan magic is group magic. They hardly have any small, everyday magics that one magician can do alone, like fire-lighting spells. They're good at big things, like moving rivers and clearing out dragon rookeries -- at least, they say it was the ancient Hijero-Cathayan magicians who cleaned out the last few nests of dragons in Ashia and Avrupa and made all the land safe for people to live in.
Hijero-Cathayan magicians almost always work in groups, with all the magicians linked together by a spell so they can pool their power. The trouble is that if even one of the magicians makes a mistake, the whole spell can come apart, and when it does, it can hurt or kill every magician who is part of it. The leader of the group, who channels all that power, usually burns out after a couple of years, if his groupworks steady. I could never make out why anybody would take up magic at all, if they knew that was in store for them, but I guess the Hijero-Cathayans don't see it that way.
But different as they are, both Avrupan and Hijero-Cathayan magic have one thing in common: The main idea is to raise up and control enough magic to do things. That's why learning either of them starts the same way, with doing small spells, and then bigger spells, using more and stronger magic to do larger and larger things each time.
Aphrikan magic starts with looking, not doing. Instead of calling up magic and controlling it, Aphrikan conjurefolk find the places where magic is already moving and then guide it somewhere else. It means the Aphrikan magicians can work together a lot more safely and easily than Avrupan or Hijero-Cathayan magicians, because they don't have to match up their spells precisely, or worry about burning each other out. It also means that Aphrikan spells hardly ever work the same way twice. Sometimes what the magicians wants to make happen is too different from the way the natural magic is moving, and he can't get it to do what he wanted at all. Because of that, most Avrupan magicians think Aphrikan magic is unpredictable and unreliable."