Approximately a year and a half since a highly public existential crisis over institutional racism, and almost exactly six years since the controversial nomination of a romance novel with a Nazi “hero” for a RITA award, Romance Writers of America is once again caught up in controversy. This time, the organization handed one of its annual awards—now named after Black co-founder Vivian Stephens—to a Christian romance about a white Army officer who participated in the Wounded Knee massacre, then rescinded it after an outcry. The kicker: It’s published by the exact same imprint that published the Nazi romance.
At Love’s Command by Karen Witemeyer is published by Bethany House, a longtime powerhouse of Christian fiction. Witemeyer is a popular Christian fiction author who specializes in Western-set historical romances with an explicitly evangelical bent, and her book won the category of Romance with Religious or Spiritual Elements, which essentially always means Christian. At Love’s Command features a woman doctor and the leader of a mercenary company who “defend the innocent and obtain justice for the oppressed,” according to the book description. Why? Well: The book opens with Captain Matthew Hanger of the 7th Calvary participating in the massacre of roughly 300 Lakota at Wounded Knee, one of the most infamous atrocities in America’s long history of atrocities against Native peoples. But the massacre is simply a pretext for his journey of redemption through marriage.
The novel’s prologue is written from Hanger’s perspective and portrays the U.S. Army as essentially forced into the confrontation with the Lakota who unwisely and violently refuse to cooperate with “a simple weapon confiscation. An escort to the reservation.” “These new Ghost Dancing rituals have the men on edge,” Hanger notes at one point; at another, the book describes to a “medicine man’s” dancing as “Taunting. Inciting,” portraying the largely unarmed Lakota as the aggressors. At another point, the book suggests that Hanger and his fellow Calvary soldiers don’t want any part of “cutting down women and children”—which simply does not square with the brutal reality of the so-called “Indian Wars”—but then when women begin taking up guns in response to the Army opening fire, we get this: “If a woman took up arms and stood beside her man in a fight, she opened herself up to the consequences. But a man of honor protected the weaker sex to the best of his ability in all circumstances. Even in war. Especially in war.” Hanger also shoots a child but Witemeyer is quick to note that the child is armed and thus, like the Lakota women, a combatant.
At Love’s Command misrepresents Wounded Knee—calling it a massacre at the very end of the prologue but portraying it as essentially just one of those things, literally romanticizing men who murdered women and children en masse. (In Witemeyer’s telling, the Hotchkiss guns kill the Lakota people, but they don’t seem to be manned by anyone.) The very structure of the story turns the horror of Wounded Knee into a backdrop for the white hero’s feelings, relegating it to the prologue, softening it and rewriting it as a question of a U.S. soldier’s redemption, pushing the people who were murdered to the background.
This is the inaugural year for the Vivian Awards, which replaced the RITA Awards after RWA’s implosion over structural racism within the organization in early 2020. As one of many reforms, RWA revamped the program, which hadn’t honored a book by a Black author until 2019. In 2015, another Bethany House book, For Such a Time, was nominated for two RITAs, even though it was about a Jewish woman and the Nazi commander of a transit camp, Theresienstadt, sending Jews on to death camps. 2021 was supposed to be a new start after years of controversy about the lack of diversity among finalists and winners. But when Witemeyer’s win was announced, it quickly became controversial. RWA responded by rescinding the award, in a statement that explained:
RWA is in full support of First Amendment rights; however, as an organization that continually strives to improve our support of marginalized authors, we cannot in good conscience uphold the decision of the judges in voting to celebrate a book that depicts the inhumane treatment of indigenous people and romanticizes real world tragedies that still affect people to this day.
But the book is also part of a longer history in the genre, which for many years was infatuated with a romanticized, fetishistic, and quite frankly racist view of Native Americans. Archivist Steve Ammindown traces some of that history in this post on his blog; he notes that the subgenre of “Indian Romance” was at one point so hugely popular that the fan magazine Romantic Times actually had an entire category of award devoted to “Best Indian Romance” from 1984 to 1993. Dozens and dozens of these romances would go so far as to casually use the term “Savage” in the title of the book itself, with one author, Cassie Edwards, essentially building an entire brand on the term.
Christian romance—which is better understood more specifically as evangelical Christian romance—also has a longstanding obsession with the West, both American and Canadian, which endures to this very day and is the immediate publishing context for Witemeyer’s books. The Hallmark powerhouse When Calls the Heart, set on the Canadian frontier, is an adaptation of works by Janette Oke, who is little known outside of evangelical circles but an absolute legend inside of them.
In response to RWA’s decision to rescind Witemeyer’s award, Bethany House provided a statement to Religion News Service, saying it supported Witemeyer and explaining:
“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.”
And yet, the whole story of the West still revolves around Matthew Hanger and men like him. In Christian romance, the West is an opportunity to spin stories about the redeeming and civilizing power of God’s love. That fantasy is simply a continuation of the same story that drove the genocide dubbed the “Indian Wars.” Wounded Knee wasn’t some freak accident, a situation that got out of hand because of a medicine man’s “inciting.” It was a culmination of America’s concerted, violent work to clear out the West for settlers, the stars of these romantic portraits about hard but faithful and ultimately rewarding small-town life. It’s telling that the hero’s entire family was killed by Commanches and, according to his backstory, their deaths are his motivation for joining the Army.
At one point, Witemeyer’s hero attempts to lead an old woman and a young boy—whom he has just shot, because the boy was holding a gun—to safety. “Him, she impaled with a look of hatred as she herded the other children back toward the camp. Into the line of fire. As if she’d rather die with her people than follow a white man to safety.” It is a pernicious fantasy to pretend that any man in the U.S. Army was offering anything like safety to any Native American, one that relies on willful ignorance of the violent realities of the reservation system and the residential school system. In fact, photographs of the Wounded Knee victims’ murdered bodies were sold as popular postcards in the aftermath. This whole story purposefully distances Christianity from the atrocity of America’s genocide against Native peoples, as though American Christianity wasn’t part and parcel of that genocide.
“How had it turned into a bloodbath?” Hanger asks himself, obscuring that it was all a bloodbath in the first place, committed with a Bible in one hand and a gun in the other.