Friday, April 24, 2009
Title: Thirteenth Child
Author: Patricia C. Wrede
Series: Frontier Magic (Book 1)
Francine, also called Eff, is the twin of a seventh son of a seventh son. The double seven, as they call him, is considered by one and all to be wildly lucky and effortlessly magical. Eff's the thirteenth child in her family. She's considered by most of her extended relations to be just plain bad luck, because everyone knows that the thirteenth child will invariably turn out evil. They're all just glad she came first so that the seventh son of the seventh son wouldn't have all the evil traits a thirteen always does.
After five years of continual praise for the double seven and continual torment for the thirteen, Eff's parents have had enough of their medlingly large extended family. They pack up the younger children (all of those who aren't married or at University) and move West to Mill City where Eff's father has been given a position as professor of magic at the new land-grant college. Mill City is just East of the Great Barrier Spell that keeps out all the terrifying animals that live across it - magical and otherwise - and sits on the Mammoth River (what we know as the Mississippi River). Eff and her family are on the very edge of the Columbian (American) Frontier, leading a life of exploration and misadventure.
An entirely new Frontier adventure, where humans never crossed the land bridge and dragons and mammoths and saber-tooth tigers still roam, emerges as a captivating and exciting world. Not only does the reader get to attend school with Eff and see our famous historical figures in her world (Lewis and Clark never returned from their trip West, and President Thomas Jefferson helped set up the Great Barrier Spell) but you can learn different magical theories and see how casting spells can go just as terribly wrong as science experiments do in our classrooms.
While subtle, since this is a book for children, the topic of racism is also dealt with. Eff is obviously from a very tolerant family, but others aren't always of the same mind frame. Miss Ochiba, the daughter of a former slave, is Eff's first magic teacher. The tones used when referring to her or when other characters are around her are always a little stand-offish or condescending. It’s subtle and I doubt most children would pick up on it, but unavoidable since this story is set shortly after the War of Succession (Civil War), which happened earlier in this alternate universe America.
Growing older with Eff it is easy to see the harm caused in her childhood by her meddling aunts and uncles in her personality. So fearful has Eff grown of becoming the evil thirteenth that she is almost afraid of her own small temper and her large abilities. How she grows enough to overcome them both make for a delightful read that is only enhanced by the surreal setting that is so deceptively so close to our own history.
Thirteenth Child is told in first person past tense. It’s so well written that I could almost hear Eff’s voice telling me the story as I read.
I haven’t read a new book by Patricia C. Wrede in quite a few years and was so thrilled to see this one promoted on Tamora Pierce’s livejournal that I went and bought it that day. Honestly, I found it difficult to put Eff’s story down. All the references to famous historical people drew me in and made me smile, especially the diatribe Lan (Eff’s twin) goes into about how well read Jefferson was and how he assumed everyone else would be also, which is true, and how Franklin made up a lot of what he did on the spot and wasn’t very clear about his procedures, which is also accurate. Plus it was a lot of fun to look at the names given places and figure out where they really were. The Mammoth River empties into the Gulf of Amerigo, one of the biggest cities on the East Coast is New Amsterdam, etc. But it would be just as easy to read the book, enjoy the story and completely ignore the new…old… names given to places familiar to us.
Eff and Lan were both very well developed characters, and I loved poor little Eff right off the bat. As she grew, I really felt the frontiersy vibe, with longer skirts for grownup ladies and pinned up hair. It was almost like reading a magical Little House on the Prairie. On the down side, I never really got to know most of Eff’s older siblings at all, even by the end of the book. I suppose that’s understandable considering that there are 12 of them.
Some people may be put off by the lack of any native presence in the Columbia described in the book, but I don’t think this was done as a slap in the face to any of the First Nation people. Rather, it’s an imaginary world where one can speculate what it would have been like to colonize the continent if humans hadn’t crossed the land bridge, if the megaflora and megafauna still rooted in or roamed the land and had a few magical beings interspersed with them.
The scene with the Steam Dragon during the Aphrikan magic lessons really drew me in, but as I mentioned earlier the diatribe by Lan about Jefferson and Franklin was my favorite.
Who this book is best for:
Kids age 9 or 10 could read this and enjoy it just as well as an adult. The only thing to consider is the length.
Violence: 0 of 5. Unless killing bugs bothers your child, you should be fine.
Stars: 4 of 5