(RNS) — Days after announcing “At Love’s Command” by Karen Witemeyer as the best romance with religious or spiritual elements of 2021 in its inaugural Vivian Awards, Romance Writers of America has rescinded the award.
The decision follows criticism from readers and other romance authors that the Christian romance novel, which opens with a scene depicting the Wounded Knee Massacre, romanticizes the killing of Native Americans.
It also follows an emergency meeting of Romance Writers of America’s board, which published a statement on the organization’s website saying it understood concerns about the book.
“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,” the statement said.
“RWA is rescinding the Vivian awarded to the book finalist ‘At Love’s Command.’”
The book’s 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, in a historical event now known as the Wounded Knee massacre.
“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 after the award was announced.
Others suggested on Twitter that the book should have been disqualified from the Vivian Awards in a year when the confirmation that hundreds of Indigenous children’s remains were 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.
Bethany House defended “At Love’s Command” in a written statement provided to Religion News Service, saying it supports Witemeyer and has heard from many readers who have been moved by the book’s portrayal of redemption and hope.
“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,” the statement said.
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.
In an earlier statement, Romance Writers of America President LaQuette said the association recognizes it must continually analyze and adjust its award contest “to ward against perpetuating harm.”
The Vivian Awards — named after Vivian Stephens, a Black author who founded 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. The organization already had planned a post-awards analysis of the contest to review its framework.
This year’s finalists were the most diverse in the history of Romance Writers of America’s contests, it said.