An romance-award-winning book blames the Sioux for the Massacre at Wounded Knee
The Romance Writers of America (RWA) held their annual Vivian Awards earlier this week, but the big story has been less about the winners in general and more one winner specifically. The victor in the Romance with Religious or Spiritual Elements category, At Loves’s Command by Karen Witemeyer, just had its win rescinded. It’s an unprecedented move, although technically speaking, any move would be unprecedented as these are the first Vivian Awards. Only just last year, the RWA changed the formerly titled RITA Awards after their founding African-American member Vivian Stephens in a rebranding effort. The RWA was suffering from some serious allegations of racism after it censured member Courtney Milan for publicly accusing fellow RWA member Kathryn Lynn Davis for espousing harmful stereotypes of Chinese women in her book Somewhere Lies the Moon in 2019.
What the RWA had hoped would be ancient history reared its ugly head again as the inaugural Vivian Awards outright honored a completely different set of stereotypes in At Love’s Command. The 1890’s era romance stars as its lead heartthrob ex-cavalry officer Matthew Hangar, who leads a band of mercenaries called Hangar’s Horsemen that defends the innocent and obtains justice for the oppressed. In his backstory, he participates in the the Massacre at Wounded Knee.
On paper this concept isn’t exactly irredeemable. A genocidal criminal who wallows in guilt but tries to achieve redemption via good deeds is exactly the kind of hero your typical romance novel fan swoons over. And even referencing the Massacre at Wounded Knee would seem to be worth some woke points, right?
The trouble is that Witemeyer goes out of her way to actually blame the natives for what happened. Sure, the cavalrymen were the ones who shot the guns, murdered the children. But when you think about it, this was just a routine weapons confiscation until that Sioux holy man started dancing around and encouraging those younger more impulsive braves to pick a fight. By defining the massacre as tragic, but still basically the fault of the natives, Witemeyer is only a slight improvement over the then-contemporary news culture that used the exact same rationalization. In an even bigger twist, those passages highlighted in the link above date to April–back when the RWA first announced its Vivian finalists. How could this happen?
The RWA, to be fair, did respond quickly. They rescinded the award for At Love’s Command on August 4th following an emergency meeting by the board in response to the controversy. But then that’s just engaging in a different kind of cluelessness. This is too little too late. To people outside the romance novel subculture this moment will continue to live in infamy, just like the Courtney Milan censure did, because the media isn’t going to reference the rescission as widely as it does the response.
But in broader terms, the RWA is a bit of a dinosaur just because its members tend to lean toward actually reading and writing books, and aren’t all that active on social media. Despite the superficial similarities, the At Love’s Command controversy differs significantly from the Cops Vs. Monsters controversy Cynthia Pelayo has undergone, because At Love’s Command actually exists. You could, if you so chose, go out and read it. Cops Vs. Monsters is just an announced series that aroused outrage solely based on its title. In a sense Pelayo invited controversy just by being active in the political circles likely to take offense. Karen Witemeyer, by contrast, doesn’t even have a Twitter account.
Being educated is likewise no safeguard against insensitivity. Among the RWA’s ambitious proposals to deal with their racism problem was a requirement for judges to watch a training video designed to help insure the judges were properly informed as to their own biases. In a classic case of missing the forest for the trees, such training likely worked to Witemeyer’s favor. Of the four men in Witemeyer’s band throughout the story proper, one was an African-American who likely completely deflected attention away from the genocidal premise.
All of this underscores the absurdity of Hangar’s Horsemen being an obvious A-Team pastiche. Which goes back to the issue of how dated the book feels. While you certainly can critique the A-Team from a racial perspective, most critical discussion today doesn’t go beyond the surface level. Even when it comes to honoring a commercial product like romance novels, a little critical thinking goes a long way.