(RNS) — Christian romance novels are generally known for their more “wholesome” take on the genre.
But this year’s winner of the Romance Writers of America’s Vivian Award for best romance with religious or spiritual elements has still managed to stir controversy.
The book — “At Love’s Command” by Karen Witemeyer — opens with a depiction of the Wounded Knee Massacre that some readers and authors have criticized as romanticizing the killing of Native Americans.
“As a Taino, I’m not at all surprised that a book has romanticized genocide. However, I am VERY (disappointed) to see it won an award,” tweeted author Mimi Milan.
“Membership permanently cancelled,” Milan added, regarding her support of Romance Writers of America.
Publisher Bethany House, a Christian publisher that describes itself as “the leader in inspirational fiction,” says on its website that “At Love’s Command” tells the story of fictional ex-cavalry officer Matthew Hanger who is “haunted by the horrors of war.” He ends up leading a band of mercenaries who “defend the innocent and obtain justice for the oppressed” in 1890s Texas and falling for doctor Josephine Burkett.
The book opens with Hanger leading the U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry as it confronts the Lakota Sioux at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. He is “grounded” by a verse from the Psalms as the cavalry demands the Lakotas’ weapons.
That’s when, Witemeyer writes, a medicine man begins chanting, “stirring up defiance,” and a Lakota man fires his gun. Hanger gives the order and unleashes the cavalry on the Lakota.
As the prologue comes to an end, Hanger asks God for forgiveness.
“They’d just participated in a massacre,” Witemeyer writes.
In accepting the Vivian Award for “At Love’s Command” Saturday (July 31) during a virtual ceremony hosted by the Romance Writers of America, Witemeyer said she was “delighted and humbled.”
“I just want to say thank you to Jesus. He is the author of the greatest love story ever told, and I can do nothing without him,” she said.
The Vivian Awards — named after Vivian Stephens, a Black author who founded the Romance Writers of America — replaced its annual RITA Awards this year after controversy over the lack of diversity at the organization led to the resignation of its president and board of directors last year. Judges must apply and complete training to determine the winners of the new contest, which is scored on a rubric meant to create more standardized judging.
“The purpose of The Vivian Contest is to recognize excellence in published romance novels and novellas, and our goal is to create a contest that is equitable and inclusive,” according to the contest rules.
But a number of romance authors took to Twitter this weekend to point to the selection of “At Love’s Command” as proof the organization hasn’t changed.
“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,” tweeted Kymberlyn Reed, a self-described bibliophile.
Others suggested on Twitter that “At Love’s Command” should have been disqualified from the Vivian Awards in a year when the confirmation of hundreds of Indigenous children’s remains buried near the grounds of residential and boarding schools has led to a reckoning over the treatment of Indigenous peoples in both Canada and the U.S.
It is unclear who actually fired the first shot at Wounded Knee, according to the History Channel, and the Lakota likely knew they were surrounded and outgunned. Some historians have speculated the massacre was revenge for the cavalry’s earlier defeat at Little Bighorn.
An estimated 150 Lakota were killed in the massacre — nearly half of them women and children. It also effectively ended the Ghost Dance, a Native American spiritual movement that forbade war against other Native Americans or white people, according to Encyclopedia Brittanica.
In a statement posted Monday evening on the Romance Writers of America website, LaQuette, the president of the organization, said she was aware one of the Vivian Awards’ categories had drawn criticism.
“Romance with Religious or Spiritual Elements, as a subgenre of romance, requires a redemptive arc as a genre convention. 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. According to its subgenre conventions, the book in question finaled and won for this category,” LaQuette said.
None of the 13 judges who scored “At Love’s Command” raised any concerns about “objectionable or harmful content,” LaQuette added.
Still, she said, the organization’s Vivian Task Force is reviewing the inaugural contest, including its entry and judging guidelines.
“While encouraged by a diverse inaugural finalist class, we do recognize that we must continually analyze and refine our process to ward against perpetuating harm. We regret any harm experienced by the romance community,” LaQuette said.
Witemeyer and Bethany House did not immediately return requests for comment by Religion News Service.