It’s not often critics accuse a Christian historical romance novel of “racism” and “glamorizing genocide.” Yet a vocal contingent of romance fans leveled these charges while demanding the Romance Writers of America (RWA) rescind its 2021 Vivian Award to Christian historical fiction novelist Karen Witemeyer for her novel At Love’s Command.
RWA voters awarded At Love’s Command in the category of “Romance with Religious or Spiritual Elements.” Days later, the association stripped Witemeyer’s book of its award.
Why are critics hating At Love’s Command?
The controversy concerned the male lead, a cavalryman who participated in the Wounded Knee massacre of Native American women and children, and his later search for redemption. At Love’s Command portrays the protagonist as anguished about his actions and seeking atonement.
Back in the real world, the mob offers no such forgiveness.
Readers largely criticized the book for portraying a “hero participating in genocide of indigenous people.” They called this repugnant. Some saw the book’s publication as evidence of “deeply embedded… white supremacy.” One reader felt prompted to continue her “boycott against all white authors,” while many others pledged to cancel membership with the RWA.
One critic quipped, “Next up: Romancing Auschwitz.”
Another said, “Real Christians do not excuse, promote, or approve of racism and genocide.”
In fact, the very idea of atonement for such egregious sins torqued the Twitterati.
Move over, evangelicals: secularists want to ‘cancel’ gritty novels
In retrospect, we could have predicted such a backlash.
In January 2021, I wrote “Militant Secularism Could Force Christians to Create New Subcultures,” about the rampant spread of political correctness, censorship, and progressive ideologies in publishing and the arts.
Social-media mobs now routinely de-platform authors, artists, and celebrities for failing to pass politically correct litmus tests regarding race, politics, or LGBTQ issues.
In today’s politically charged climate, social justice warriors regularly mob authors, forcing their publishers to drop them. So a story written by a white woman about a white man’s participation in the massacre of Native Americans was destined for the beatdown.
Bethany House rides to the rescue
At this time, however, we’ve seen a less-predictable response from the At Love’s Command’s publisher, Bethany House.
Shortly after the RWA rescinded its award for Witemeyer’s novel, Bethany House addressed the controversy. Religion News Service shared the publisher’s response, “saying it supports Witemeyer and has heard from many readers who have been moved by the book’s portrayal of redemption and hope.” RNS excerpted Bethany House’s statement:
In the opening scene of the novel, Witemeyer’s hero, a military officer, is at war with the Lakota, weary of war, but fully participating in the battle at Wounded Knee. The death toll, including noncombatant Lakota women and children, sickens him, and he identifies it as the massacre it is and begs God for forgiveness for what he’s 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 atone for the wrong that he did.2
The Wounded Knee massacre was one of “the darkest moments of our nation’s history” and a “deplorable” act of violence, according to Bethany House. Both the publisher and author intended to “recount this history for the tragedy it was,” the publisher said.3
It’s incredibly refreshing to see a publisher stand up and defend its author against the mob.
Bethany House is also absolutely correct about how storytellers portray historical fiction, with the genre’s parameters and liberties.
Neither they nor At Love’s Command’s author downplay the atrocities of Wounded Knee. In fact, the author “makes it clear throughout the book that the protagonist deeply regrets his actions and spends the rest of his life trying to atone for the wrong that he did.”
Christian stories must expose darkness to show gospel light
Secular moralistic mobs offer no redemption, either to the novel’s fictional character nor to the author and her publisher. Biblical history reveals another story. God is merciful and forgiving. No one is beyond his reach. And the last time I checked, good fiction explores these kinds of emotional and theological complexities.
For example, since 1973, abortionists have killed over 62 million infant children. That’s a clear-cut genocide! So can such people find redemption? Can God’s mercy and grace change the heart of a doctor who performs abortions? Now, just extend the question. Can a Vietnam veteran who killed innocent women and children find redemption? Can a KKK member find redemption? Could an Israelite soldier who helped slaughter Amalekites find redemption? Can a murderer, serial killer, rapist, or gangland mob boss find redemption?
Good storytelling explores these questions and fleshes them out.
In fact, history offers many atrocities to explore—wicked deeds done by wicked people. No race, tribe, gender, age group, or culture is exempt from sin. Human depravity is not unique to white Europeans. Yes, it’s wrong to celebrate crimes against humanity. That’s not the same as wrestling with the complexities of human emotion, guilt, and the struggle for redemption.
Sadly, in this case, moral mobs prefer identity box-checking, name-calling, and piling on an author who dared tackle a complex historical scenario, over anything close to novel nuance.
Thank you, Bethany House Publishers, for defending your author against the mob.
If only speculative fiction publishers would do the same!
- You can learn more lurid details about this controversy at the Twitter hashtag #RWAVivian2021. ↩
- “Romance Writers of America rescinds award for Christian novel as publisher defends it,” Emily McFarlan Miller, Religion News Service, Aug. 4, 2021. ↩
- Ibid. ↩