Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Review of Thirteenth Child by Patricia Wrede

Wrede, Patricia. Thirteenth Child. Scholastic, 2009.

Eff’s twin brother Lan is the seventh son of a seventh son, ensuring that he has greater-than-usual magical power. Unfortunately, Eff was born just before Lan, making her a thirteenth child – and superstition has it that thirteenth children can’t help but bring evil and misfortune on everyone around them. Although Eff’s immediate family finds this a ludicrous notion, Eff gets enough grief from other folks to internalize the fear that she is bad luck.

Even after her father moves the family out to the frontier town of Mill City out on the North Plains Territory in order to teach magic at a new college, Eff worries about being the thirteenth child. In fact, Eff worries for more than ten years – until finally, when she is 18 years old, her own strange and special kind of magic averts a disaster in the form of voracious magical bugs.

Eff’s story takes place in an alternate world in which magic has always existed. What we know as the United States is called Columbia, and the western frontier is plagued by all manner of fearsome and mysterious magical beasts. The settlers use a combination of somewhat feeble 19th century technology and complex magical spells to keep the beasts at bay and to keep things running smoothly. Because magic is used for so much in everyday life, from keeping flies away to keeping buildings up, technology hasn’t progressed at a very quick pace.

Not a heck of a lot happens for much of this book, which wasn’t such a terrible thing for the most part. Readers expecting thrill-a-minute magical adventures should look elsewhere, as for the most part Eff, along with her siblings and friends, goes to school, learns the theory and practice of several different magical traditions, and grows up. Eff is a fine narrator who keeps us interested in her life (even when nothing much is happening) but unfortunately she takes too much about her world for granted – while I, on the other hand, was dying to know the entire history of this alternate Earth. We get little hints and glimmers, enough to know that things are very different indeed in Eff’s Columbia and in her world at large. Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were crack magicians, for instance (just what you’d expect), the Mississippi is called the Mammoth, there seem to be no native peoples in “Columbia” at all, and all the other countries have very different names and, presumably, histories.

Despite my desire to know more, I was fairly happy with the leisurely pace. It is sometimes hard to keep track of how old Eff is at various points in the story – but as she is a good, practical girl who has apparently no interest in any romantic liaisons or even a BFF (other than a lad named William – a future beau, perhaps?), this doesn’t matter so much. This lack of any close ties beyond her twin brother and her friend William is a bit of a problem, however, as Eff tends to come across as almost too self-contained and independent. We know about her insecurities stemming from that old thirteenth child problem – indeed, this is perhaps why she rarely forms close friendships – but it would have been delightful to get to know more of the townspeople and their ways. In the Little House books, readers get to know Laura’s family and community intimately, whether she is out in the prairie or in a town – but that never happens here. Mill City remains a somewhat anonymous and even generic frontier town to us.

This is the first in a series called “Frontier Magic.” I will certainly read the next installment, in the hopes of learning more about Eff, her mysterious magic, and her world.

Recommended for grades 6 and up.

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