About a year and a half since a highly public existential crisis over institutional racism, and almost exactly six years since the controversy nomination of a romance novel with a Nazi “hero” for a RITA award, Romance Writers of America is once again caught up in controversy. This time around, the organization presented one of its annual awards – now named after black co-founder Vivian Stephens – to a Christian romance about a White Army officer who participated in the Wounded Knee massacre, then l ‘canceled after an uproar. The kicker: it is published exactly by the same imprint who published the Nazi novel.
At the command of love by Karen Witemeyer is published by Bethany House, a long-standing Christian fiction powerhouse. Witemeyer is a popular Christian fiction author who specializes in Western historical romances with an explicitly evangelical bent, and her book won the Romance with Religious or Spiritual Elements category, which essentially always means Christian. At the command of love features a female doctor and the head of a business of mercenaries who “defend the innocent and obtain justice for the oppressed,” as the book describes. Why? Well: The book opens with Captain Matthew Hanger of 7th Calvary participating in the massacre of around 300 Lakota at Wounded Knee, one of the most infamous atrocities in the long history of atrocities against Indigenous peoples in the States. -United. But the massacre is only a pretext for his journey of redemption through marriage.
The novel’s prologue is written from Hanger’s perspective and portrays the US military as essentially being forced into confrontation with the Lakota who recklessly and violently refuse to cooperate with “a mere confiscation of weapons.” An escort on reservation. “These new ghost dancing rituals put men on edge,” Hanger notes at one point; to another, the book describes the dance of a “medicine man” as “mockery.” Inciting, ”describing the largely unarmed Lakota as the aggressors. At another point, the book suggests that Hanger and his fellow Calvary soldiers are unwilling to “slaughter women and children” at all – which just doesn’t fit the brutal reality of the so-called “Indian wars” – but then when the women start to take up arms in response to the army opening fire, we get this: “If a woman took up arms and stood next to her man in a fight, she would expose herself. to the consequences. But a man of honor protected the weaker sex as best he could under all circumstances. Even in times of war. Mostly at war. ”Hanger also shoots a child but Witemeyer is quick to see that the child is armed and therefore, like the Lakota women, a fighter.
At the command of love distorts Wounded Knee, calling it a slaughter at the very end of the prologue, but describing it as essentially one of those things, literally romanticizing men who have murdered women and children en masse. (In Witemeyer’s tale, the Hotchkiss pistols kill the Lakota people, but they don’t appear to be manipulated by anyone.) The very structure of the story turns the horror of Wounded Knee into a backdrop for the feelings of the white hero, relegating it to the prologue, softening it and rewriting it as a matter of the redemption of an American soldier, pushing the murdered people into the background.
This is the inaugural year of the Vivian Awards, which replaced the RITA Awards after RWA’s implosion on structural racism within the organization early 2020. As one of the many reforms, RWA revamped the program, which had not honored a book by a Black author until 2019. In 2015, another book by Bethany House, For such a time, has been nominated for two RITAs, even though it was a Jewish woman and the Nazi commander of a transit camp, Theresienstadt, sending Jews to death camps. 2021 was meant to be a fresh start after years of controversy over the lack of diversity among finalists and winners. But when Witemeyer’s victory was announced, it quickly became controversial. RWA responded by canceling the award, a statement that explains:
RWA fully supports the rights of the First Amendment; However, as an organization that continually strives to improve our support for marginalized authors, we cannot in good conscience support the judges’ decision when voting to celebrate a book that portrays the inhumane treatment of indigenous peoples and romanticizes real world tragedies that still affect people to this day.
But the book is also part of a longer history of the genre, which for many years has been infatuated with a fictionalized, fetishistic, and downright racist view of Native Americans. Archivist Steve Ammindown traces part of this story in this article on his blog; he notes that the subgenre of “Indian Romance” was at one point so popular that fan magazine Romantic moments actually had an entire award category devoted to “Best Indian Romance” from 1984 to 1993. Dozens and dozens of these romances would go so far as to casually use the term “Savage” in the title of the book itself, with one author, Cassie Edwards, essentially building an entire brand on the term.
Christian romance – which is best understood more specifically as evangelical Christian romance – also has a long-standing obsession with the West, both American and Canadian, which continues to this day and forms the context for the immediate publication of the books of Witemeyer. Hallmark power station When the heart calls you, located on the Canadian border, is an adaptation of works by Janette Oke, who is little known outside evangelical circles but an absolute legend within them.
In response to RWA’s decision to rescind Witemeyer’s award, Bethany House provided a statement to Religion News Service, saying he supported Witemeyer and explaining:
“In the novel’s opening scene, Witemeyer’s hero, a military officer, is at war with the Lakota, weary of war but fully participating in the Battle of Wounded Knee. The death toll, including non-combatant Lakota women and children, makes him sick, and he identifies it as the slaughter that he is and begs God to forgive him for what he has done. The author makes it clear throughout the book that the protagonist deeply regrets his actions and spends the rest of his life trying to right the wrong he has done.
And yet, the whole history of the West still revolves around Matthew Hanger and men like him. In Christian romance, the West is an opportunity to tell stories about the redemptive and civilizing power of God’s love. This fantasy is simply the continuation of the same story that led to the genocide dubbed the “Indian Wars”. Wounded Knee was not a freak accident, a situation that got out of hand because of the “prompting” of a medicine man. It was the culmination of America’s concerted and violent work to rid the West of settlers, the stars of those romantic portraits of the harsh but faithful and ultimately rewarding life of a small town. It is telling that the hero’s entire family was killed by Commanches and, according to his story, their death is his motivation to join the army.
At one point, Witemeyer’s hero tries to bring an old woman and a young boy – whom he just shot down – to safety because the boy was holding a gun. “Him,” she impaled herself with a look of hatred as she led the other children back to the camp. In the crosshairs. As if she would rather die with her people than follow a white man to safety. It is a pernicious fantasy to claim that any man in the U.S. military offered anything like security to any Native American, one that is based on willful ignorance of the violent realities of the reservation system and the system of boarding schools. Indeed, photographs injured knee the murdered bodies of the victims were then sold as popular postcards. This whole story is deliberately taking Christianity away from the atrocity of the American genocide against Indigenous peoples, as if American Christianity was not an integral part of that genocide.
“How did it become a bloodbath?” Hanger wonders, obscuring that it was primarily a bloodbath, committed with a Bible in one hand and a pistol in the other.