Christian romance isn’t really known for controversy. How much controversy can there really be in gruff but sensitive frontiersman Wyatt P. Buckles falling for the chaste allure of the waifish, materially impoverished but spiritually flush schoolmarm Abigail Heavenston? They’re designed to be about as inoffensive as possible while still offering a little tantalizing romance. But one new, award-winning entry into the genre is generating a lot of heat, and not the romantic kind.
The book is called At Love’s Command by Karen Witemeyer, and it won this year’s Romance Writers of America’s Vivian Award for best romance with religious or spiritual elements. The award brought new scrutiny and attention to the book’s plot, and led to a number of romance novel fans expressing frustration and disappointment with its depiction of the events at Wounded Knee. Hoo boy.
According to Religion News Service‘s Emily McFarlane Miller, At Love’s Command follows the story of Matthew Hanger, a fictional ex-cavalry officer haunted by his actions at the very real Wounded Knee Massacre. The book’s prologue finds our “hero” attempting to disarm the Lakota Calvary — taking comfort in Scripture as he does so — when a “medicine man” starts “stirring up defiance,” leading to a Lakota soldier firing his weapon. Hanger gives the order for his calvary to retaliate. What follows is a massacre.
Students of history may note some discrepancies between this telling of Wounded Knee and what actually happened in 1890. We don’t know who fired first. Some tellings of the event do note that a Lakota man’s rifle went off first, but it may have done so accidentally as soldiers were attempting to take it from him. What is clear is that more than 250 Lakota men, women and children were dead by the time it was all over. For years, the massacre was popularly referred to as a battle and 20 U.S. soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions. But in 1970, historian Dee Brown’s bestseller Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee exposed the horrors endured by the Lakota people at the battlefield, and the true nature of the day’s events began to overtake the myth. In 1990, Congress passed a resolution expressing “deep regret” for the massacre.
That’s all to say, it’s a very ill-advised setting for a Christian romance, no matter how tortured our hero is by his deeds. That’s how many readers and fans of the genre felt.
“As a Taino, I’m not at all surprised that a book has romanticized genocide,” wrote novelist Mimi Milan. “However, I am VERY disappoined [sic] to see it won an award.”
Novelist Kristan Higgans agreed. “As a past member (chapter president, national board member, speaker, etc.), & despite the efforts of so many who tried so hard to make [Romance Writers of America] better over the years, I think it’s time to disband the @romancewriters organization. It cannot be taken seriously any longer.”
This is far from the first controversy the RWA has weathered in recent years. In fact, the the Vivian Awards are new this year, replacing the old annual RITA awards after the the former president and board of directors all resigned en masse following anger at the lack of diversity. While it was hoped that the overhaul would bring some much needed new energy to the RWA, many writers took At Love’s Command win as a sign that nothing had really changed. This was especially disappointing since Vivian Stephens, the author who founded the Romance Writers of America organization, is herself a Black woman.
As a romance novel fan named Kymberlyn Reed put it, “A ‘romance’ in which the ‘hero’ commits genocide against Native Americans is honored with an award named after the pioneering Black woman founder of RWA is why the organization continues to bleed membership.”
Many other fans noted that the book’s plot felt rung particularly offensive given the hundreds of unmarked Indigenous graves discovered near residential schools across Canada earlier this year. Those stories have brought renewed attention to the atrocities committed against Native Americans, often with the blessing of the Church.
RWA President LaQuette posted a statement acknowledging the controversy and defending the selection, saying At Love’s Command follows Hanger’s redemptive arc. “Romance with Religious or Spiritual Elements, as a subgenre of romance, requires a redemptive arc as a genre convention,” LaQuette wrote. “Essentially, the character can’t be redeemed by human means; only through their spiritual/religious awakening can they find redemption for their moral failings and or crimes against humanity.”
Of course, nobody’s arguing that a fictional character can’t experience fictional grace and forgiveness, no matter what they did. But the broader question is whether or not this story is doing the same work as the many, many similar tales that came before it: whitewashing atrocities and then centering the perpetrators rather than the victims.