On the one hand, this book really appeals to me. On the other hand, I'm a bit put off by a heated debate that followed its publication. I'm not sure if you heard of it, but many readers were upset that Wrede completely suppressed Native Americans from the world she created, especially as this decision was apparently accompanied by some comments about how she wanted to create an alternative American where magical beasts lived alongside with people, but other than adding the magic, she didn't want to make any changes that would have much of a cultural impact. People were of course very upset with the implication that the non-existence of Native Americans would be just a small detail without much of an impact at all. As you're someone whose opinion on these things I really value, I thought I'd ask you how you felt about this aspect of the story.
I didn't know about the controversy (I missed it completely, and am somewhat chagrined that I did) but I'm not in the least surprised that there was one, because I did notice the lack of Native Americans and I did wonder what happened to them and why they weren't involved, even mentioned. I thought it strange. I thought about writing about it in the review, but then I couldn't think of exactly what to say. So now that you've prodded me into it (and thank you for that), here are my thoughts for now:
Let me say first that I'm pretty sure it would be irresponsible of me to speculate on Wrede's motives, not having read any of the printed material surrounding this, nor heard Wrede herself say anything. But aside from my own personal suspicions about what she was thinking, something does occur to me: I can see, without too much difficulty, that adding that dimension to the story would have complicated it into something much bigger and different from the tale Wrede obviously wished to tell. Any inclusion of anything regarding Native Americans would have made a point in one way or another. It would have added an extra layer of complexity and this was already a story more complex than any other Wrede I've read.
I don't know much about the frontier at all, but my understanding is that the Natives didn't populate North America nearly as densely as we do now. There would have been large swathes of unpopulated land. I suspect, though I am not certain, that it would have been possible for people to live their entire lives as settlers in a large, well-established frontier town without ever encountering a Native, or even really thinking about them. If Wrede decided not to add that aspect to her story, I don't think that's so far-fetched. And her alleged comment could be interpreted in that light, too.
It's true that the exclusion was noticeable. Taken in another way, her comment could smack of entitlement: that whole "wild uninhabited west ripe for settlement" attitude when in fact the west was perfectly well inhabited and settled before Europeans got here, densely or not. When basing an alternate history so closely on ours, I do think it a strange choice to include notable historical (white, male) characters and yet also exclude an entire group of people. Particularly since the group excluded has a long history of discrimination against them -- it's hard not to view it as yet another discriminatory act, even if it is in a world that is recognizably not one we inhabit.
This is the first of a trilogy and it's possible that in Eff's travels she will encounter that alternate universe version of Natives. It's also possible she won't ever meet or hear of a Native American equivalent, that it won't ever be addressed. Wrede might decide that it's not part of what she's working with in her story. I think it is her authorial prerogative.
I loved the book, and I noticed the exclusion and yet decided to go with the story anyways and enjoy it. I don't regret that decision. I still love the book. I do hope that the exclusion and the comment wasn't out of either overt or subliminal racism, but more a conscious decision, based on reasonable information, not to complicate the story and turn it into something different from the story she wished to tell. But, either way, I think the fact that the exclusion was noticeable, and that there was pushback about it, is a good thing.