NEW YORK (AP) — The Romance Writers of America has withdrawn an award for a novel widely criticized for its sympathetic portrait of a cavalry officer who participated in the slaughter of Lakota Indians at the Battle of Wounded Knee.
On July 31, RWA judges gave Karen Witemeyer’s “At Love’s Command” the Vivian Award for best romance book “with religious or spiritual elements.” Witemeyer’s book centers on Matthew Hanger, a veteran from the 1890 massacre whose Christian faith helps him reconcile with the past.
News of the award for “At Love’s Command” was greeted on social media with anger and disbelief, especially after the RWA initially said that the spiritual category concerned characters who “find redemption for their moral failings and or crimes against humanity.” Author Delaney Williams, a Native American, tweeted that the RWA was honoring “stories in which the genocide of my ancestors are used as a plot convention to gain forgiveness, not from those killed, but from a foreign god.” A fellow Vivian winner, Sara Whitney, returned her prize in protest.
The RWA then announced that its board had gathered for an emergency meeting and decided to rescind the award.
“RWA is in full support of First Amendment rights,” according to a statement from the association. “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.”
Witemeyer’s publisher, Bethany House, issued a statement saying it was “saddened” by the response to the book.
“Witemeyer wrote this carefully-researched story with the knowledge that it would include some of the darkest moments of our nation’s history, including deplorable acts of violence like the Wounded Knee Massacre,” the statement reads. “It was neither the author’s nor publisher’s wish to offend, but rather to recount this history for the tragedy it was. That it was perpetuated by ordinary people like the characters in Witemeyer’s novel is a sobering aspect of that tragedy.”
In an email Friday to The Associated Press, Witemeyer wrote: “While I don’t agree with RWA’s choice to rescind an award fairly won, I understand why they felt compelled to take such action, and I harbor no resentment toward them.”
The RWA acknowledged previous troubles in its statement. In 2020, much of its leadership resigned or was forced out because of low diversity and the awards themselves were renamed. They had been called the RITA Award, in honor of the first association president, Rita Clay Estrada. They were renamed the Vivian Award, for Vivian Stephens, a Black author who helped found the RWA.