Thirteenth Child (Frontier Magic Book), by Patricia Wrede (Scholastic, 2009, 344 pp, upper middle grade to YA).
Little Eff is the thirteenth child, and that means she's walking bad luck, according to some. Her extended family sees Evil manifesting itself in every accident of her childhood. She doesn't feel particularly bad, but she can't help but worry that there's some truth in what they say. After all, it's true that the seventh son of a seventh son, like her twin brother, Lan, will have great magical prowess and good luck all his life. So when her father takes a job teaching magic out in the Wild West, leaving several older siblings behind, Eff's relief at being able to hide her secret knows no bounds.
In the western frontier of 19th-century Columbia, an alternate United States, mammoths and saber-tooths co-exist with magical and dangerous creatures. No-one has made it to the Rockies and come back to tell about it. The Lewis and Clark expedition was doomed. The university town, however, is safely behind a great magical barrier, created by Jefferson and Franklin, and so Eff and her family are hardly touched by what lies beyond. Stampeding woolly rinoceri might destroy settlements, swarming weasels and spectral bears might kill the unwary explorer, but life for a child living behind the Great Barrier is just school (which includes learning magic) and chores (made easier by magic). Lan is a powerful wunderkind at the magic part of life, being a double 7th, but Eff's anxiety about her possible propensity for ill-luck keeps her from realizing that her brother is not the only talented one.
I enjoyed reading about school and chores, a sister getting married, friendships developing (although Eff is always something of a loner, being unable to shake her feeling that she is cursed), another sister eloping, learning "Aphrikan" magic as well as "Avropan," and having rheumatic fever. I liked this aspect of the book--it was pleasant reading, in much the same way that many 20th-century books about a upper middle-class girl growing up, with little of the external world impinging on her life, are pleasant reading. (I thought of the Betsy-Tacy books, and tried to unthink it, because there are so many, many differences, but couldn't, quite, because the chummy sort of voice seemed so similar to me).
Still, I was very glad when I got to page 245, and Eff, now a teenager, finally crossed the Great Barrier and had an adventure involving magical creatures and her own untested abilities. The 244 pages before this point had begun to seem like a very long world-building and character-building preamble, and although (as I said), I enjoyed it, I was ready for Happenings to happen to make all of this world building and re-naming and wooly rhino-ing mean something, as opposed to being very interesting, but under utilized, bagatelle.
But you know the problem with many 20th-century books about white upper-middle-class girls growing up with enough money and education and all? They aren't the sort of books that open the eyes of the white upper-middle-class girls reading them to what other lives are like. They don't care to disturb the universe by raising difficult questions of a social justice sort, and, instead, sweep things under the carpet.
The Thirteenth Child suffers sadly from this, and, as a result, it's generating a fair bit of controversy. In Wrede's alternate United States, there's a pretty big erasure. There are no Native Americans. None. I hope I would have noticed this myself, but I'll never know- - I found out when I was only on page 20 after reading the comments on Jo Walton's review.
The erasure of an entire continent's worth of native peoples is disturbing in fiction, because it is too scarily close to what happened in fact (both in the past and in the educational/cultural system of the present). It is especially jarring in this book because people like Jefferson, Lewis, and Clarke are named by name, tying this alternate America inextricably to our own. If only this story were set in a place more elsewhere, one could enjoy the basic "settling an empty world with hostile magical creatures" premise, without the troubling elimination of all the many peoples living here, who were, for whatever reason, deemed irrelevant to the story.
It is possible that beyond the Rocky Mountains there are Native Americans, with their own type of magic, and that Eff will meet them in subsequent books. I would like this. It is also possible that there aren't, based on hearsay in one of the comments on Jo Walton's review.
Other reviews: Eva's Book Addiction, Bib-Laura-Graphy, Abby (the) Librarian, Book Aunt, and Persephone Reads.