Slavery in Young Adult and Fantasy Literature: “The Winner’s Curse” by Marie Rutkoski

By: Daniel Brount

Recreating the trauma of slavery is challenging enough when writing about historical events, but it’s even more difficult with fantasy fiction. Marie Rutkoski takes on this challenge with her young adult fantasy novel The Winner’s Curse (2014). Though her work does not depict slavery perfectly, the fictional world’s slave system is successful enough to draw readers’ attention to the controversial issue. With more texts like this, the literary world can drive readers to care more about the slavery epidemic that still exists today.

Rutkoski writes in third person but specifically delves into the minds of Kestrel, a general’s daughter, and the slave she buys at an auction. Though she purchases the slave, Arin, she is not particularly supportive of the institution of slavery. Her nation is an expanding one that enslaves the people of the places it invades. Arin is a Herrani, one of the races most recently enslaved by the Valorians. From Kestrel’s end, her perspective includes her considerations about the validity of slavery – she often expresses her guilt for purchasing Arin, and she points out how some people feel uncomfortable purchasing people even when the slaves already aid them with every task of their day. From Arin’s end, he discusses how he feels animalized, and his disdain toward his place in Valorian society leads him to work toward a slave rebellion.

Rather than exclusively exploring one perspective of slavery, Rutkoski takes the time to include two. This enhances the value and validity of this fictitious portrayal of slavery, but it also emphasizes how challenging it is to get it right.

Initially, the text displays numerous descriptions of slavery as Rutkoski divulges the details of the society. During the first chapter from Arin’s point of view, he is simply referred to as “the slave.” Nothing else. This, along with the fact that he is renamed “Smith” to represent his blacksmithing skill, provides a powerful example of the loss of identity that slaves experience. Especially for someone like Arin, who was not born a slave, this conflict over his identity is very evident. After being referred to as an animal, he tries to process the words: “Somehow, ‘animal’ had become possible. Somehow, the word named him. This was a discovery ten years old and yet remade every day. It should have been dulled by repetition. Instead, he was sore from its constant cut of surprise. He was sour with swallowed anger” (33). Because he used to be a free man, he refuses to cope with his new identity as a slave.

His identity struggles expand, with his resistance blowing up into participation in a slave rebellion later. With this uprising, the text opens up questions about the morality of rebellion and what actions are acceptable for those seeking justice. To regain their position of freedom, the Herrani people cross many moral lines, such as poisoning innocent people and enslaving those who enslaved them. Instead of glossing over these complicated actions, Rutkoski highlights it from each side of the conflict, primarily focusing on the relationship between Kestrel and Arin.

Along with this rebellion, the focus on war in the text provides a context for understanding slavery that results from conquest and expansion. In the author’s note, Rutkoski explains her attempt to connect the society she creates to that of the Greco-Roman period and how Rome enslaved Greece’s population after engulfing the nation. Rather than the more common focus on the U.S. Civil War era and slave texts grounded primarily on issues of sexual abuse, this book explores another type of slavery, helping to better expand the range and variety of books on slavery.

Rutkoski further enhances this range of slavery topics with the discussion of society’s ostracism toward those it perceives as participating in master-slave sexual relations, slave auctions, and activities the culture has associated with slaves. For example, Kestrel is a musician, but music is considered below her because her society is so military-focused. Her people do not see the arts as important, and therefore they belong to the lowest class.

Rutkoski adds more depth to his depiction of the slavery system when one slave gains freedom. As a child, Kestrel asks her father to free her nurse Enai on her birthday, but when her nurse does not react positively to the news, Kestrel realizes that her nurse could never really gain her independence: “Kestrel saw, then, what Enai did: the difficulties of an old Herrani woman alone—however free—in her occupied country. Where would she sleep? How would she earn enough to eat, and who would employ her when Herrani couldn’t employ anyone and Valorians had slaves?” (49-50).

Because of the wide range of points the novel explores in the discussion of slavery, it can be called a success. But, it still fails where most slavery literature fails: the creation of substantial empathy and recognition of trauma.

Empathizing with Kestrel comes easily, but with Arin and the other slaves, the connection is minimal. On one level, this is because of the lack of an in-depth exploration of the lives of less well-kept slaves. Arin has it much better than other slaves, and Rutkoski fails to explore the harsher lives of slaves in her text. There are glimpses, but nothing deep enough to impact the reader.

Yet, I am not disappointed. Recreating the trauma of slavery is simply not possible. While Rutkoski could have developed the darker side of slavery more, she succeeds in creating a believable slavery system in a fictional world. In young adult fantasy literature, all I can ask for is more risk. To expose the general population to slavery, we need more of these texts. Those who don’t know or don’t care about slavery won’t be looking at texts that are solely considered slave narratives. But they will explore fantasy novels and young adult literature. Maybe this glimpse into the fictional slave system of The Winner’s Curse can engender a new curiosity in understanding the traumas of modern slavery.


Works Cited

Rutkoski, Marie. The Winner’s Curse. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux for Young Readers, 2014. Print.

Slavery and the White Savior: Then and Now

By: Sadie Brown

In reviews of Django Unchained, the film is often criticized for its portrayal of the white savior figure. In his review of the film, Matthew Hughey tells readers why Django is not a revenge fantasy:

Django is no antebellum-era Shaft.  King Schultz not only buys Django’s freedom, trains him in the art of bounty hunting, finds Django’s stolen wife Broomhilda, kills his wife’s master Calvin Candie, but ends up sacrificing his life for Django and Broomhilda’s freedom.  His rampage arises not from a love for his people, but out of affection for a single person.  Django is not a cause of black liberation, but an effect of a white paternal redeemer. (Hughey np)

Tarantino focuses so much attention on the white characters that the black characters become static and forgotten. While Django Unchained is neither the first nor last narrative to capitalize on the white savior trope, it has made it easier for viewers to identify what the ideology of the white savior entails.

When watching a film like Django Unchained, it is important to know that the trope of the white savior has a long history. By examining the film alongside a 17th century text written by author Samuel Sewall, I will show how the portrayal of the white savior can be recognized and compared across both narratives. Comparing Tarantino’s white savior figure to that of Sewall’s helps demonstrate how the trope stems from feelings of superiority. In The Selling of Joseph, A Memorial (1700), Sewall argues against those who support slavery. He states: “And all things considered, it would conduce more to the Welfare of the Province, to have White Servants for a Term of Years, than to have Slaves for Life. Few can endure to hear of a Negro’s being made free; and indeed they can seldom use their freedom well; yet their continual aspiring after their forbidden Liberty, renders them Unwilling Servants” (547). Like Django Unchained, Sewall’s narrative complicates the ties between slavery and superiority. Sewall exerts his power by taking on the role of a white savior. Rather than arguing for the equal treatment of slaves and whites alike, Sewall uses his social position as a powerful white male to discuss why African Americans do not belong in his community. His remarks show how little he thinks of African Americans – saying that they are incapable of using their freedom “well.” This quote demonstrates how abolitionist writings, or films such as Django Unchained, can become tied up with issues of white superiority.

Tarantino’s film did not create the white savior character, but it did make the trope better known. By further investigating earlier texts that also boasted a white savior, we are able to more easily understand why this trope is so tied up in portrayals of slavery. It could be that, by changing the emphasis, the audience feels compelled to focus more on the white savior in his attempt to “save” the slaves from their lives of servitude, rather than causing the audience to focus primarily on the plight of the African Americans slaves themselves. The white savior trope allows a white audience a distraction from feeling guilty about historical acts of slavery. For this reason, both Django Unchained and The Selling of Joseph, A Memorial capitalize on the audience’s desire to invest energy in the figure of the white savior. While Tarantino’s film deals with white guilt as well as the white savior, Sewall’s text concerns the detrimental efforts of slavery in his community and how it would be better off without African American slaves. Whatever the intentions may be, we can see from these examples that the trope of the white savior is another form of superiority.


Works Cited

Sewall, Samuel. The Selling of Joseph, A Memorial. Ed. Sidney Kaplan. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1969.

Hughey, Matthew. “Slavery, Emancipation, and the Great White Benefactor in Django Unchained and Lincoln.” Race. Research. Rambling. 6 Apr. 2013. Web. 13 Dec. 2014  (link) 

The S.P.E.W. Effect: Why Some Abolitionist Efforts Fail

By: Niki Wilkes

The Harry Potter series was a giant exercise in universe building, and with seven books, J.K. Rowling had a lot of space to incorporate many of the more complicated aspects of society. One notable inclusion is the plight of house-elves, the wizarding world’s manifestation of slavery. This institution was hinted at as early as the second book with the introduction of Dobby into the plot, but was placed in the background until the fourth book, when Hermione witnesses the harsh treatment of Winky at the Quidditch World Cup. She shouts, “You know, house-elves get a very raw deal….It’s slavery, that’s what it is….Why doesn’t anyone do something about it?” (80).

Hermione decides to be that someone and starts an awareness campaign, which would eventually be called S.P.E.W., as soon as she gets back to school. Harry and Hermione confronted the problem in very different ways with actions that produced different results. Where Harry desired to free one elf in The Chamber of Secrets and succeeded, Hermione felt called to topple the entire system by creating an awareness campaign, but failed.

Hermione was a young activist, likely to make many blunders as she learned how to move and persuade people. She had some good first steps by doing extensive research on the creatures that she was trying to free and attempting to make an organization for the cause to cling to. Her actual awareness building and persuasive tactics, however, fell a little flat. This is not altogether the fault of her social awkwardness or the stubbornness of her classmates. Part of it was that she lacked the proper techniques on how to make a private, domestic or economic issue, meant to be resolved between the house-elves and their masters, into an effective public and political issue.

An article by Nicolas M. Dahan and Milton Gittens explains how any anti-slavery advocate needs to frame their issue and move the issue from private to public. There are three framings needed to shape this problem into a public ethical issue. First, the activist must use diagnostic framing, which is pointing out the problem, its causes, and consequences. Then the advocate must come up with a prognostic framing that gives a suggested solution or plan of attack to eliminating the problem. Finally, they must use motivational framing, which gives their cause urgency and a rationale as to why their issue must be addressed quickly (230).

Hermione could point to the problem, but could not properly articulate the consequences, for both the house-elves and the people who benefit from the system. She also could not suggest solutions on how to handle issues that would arise if the house-elves were freed. For example, how would the elves be healed from the psychological damage inflicted by their masters, who made them believe that they are inferior and have no other purpose in life but to serve?  And, who would fill the labor hole left by the elves’ emancipation? Finally, she is unsuccessful at convincing others as to why this is a problem that needs to be fixed immediately.  All these qualities were missing in the S.P.E.W. campaign, which is why it unfortunately failed.

Her attempts are certainly noble, especially for trying to fight the issue alone. It was also not a complete waste of effort because, according to Brychann Carey, Hermione homed in on one important idea that can make an activist campaign more successful. He states that, unlike Harry, who managed to free one elf because Dobby helped him but did not continue with his abolitionist efforts, Hermione realized that the problem of house-elf slavery is not a personal one, but a public one requiring political engagement to reach public solutions (Carey 105). Hermione’s steps were clumsy, but she ultimately started with a workable model that just needed to be tweaked in order to make it more effective (Carey 107).

While Rowling does not offer suggestions on how to make a successful campaign, she does paint a picture of a world not too unlike our own where people in the non-slave class are, at best, apathetic to an institution so ingrained into our society. In most cases, even if we are disturbed by the fact that slavery still exists and that we even benefit from it, we feel that it is too big of an issue to individually tackle. The question of house elves gets dropped after the fourth book, just as the issue of modern slavery rises and falls in our own social awareness.  Hermione was discouraged from her efforts because closer, more personal threats took up her energy, much like the reality that those who do not personally encounter slavery do not actively pursue the end to slavery. With the inclusion of the house elves and the issue of slavery, Rowling might be suggesting that so many social injustices continue to exist because activists are unable to give the issues the sense of urgency needed in order to resolve them.


Works Cited

Carey, Brycchan. “Hermione and the House-Elves: The Literary and Historical Context of J.K. Rowling’s Antislavery Campaign.” Reading Harry Potter: Critical Essays. Ed. Giselle Liza Anatol. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003: 104-115. Print.

Dahan, Nicolas M. and Milton Gittens. “Business and the Public Affairs of Slavery: A Discursive Approach of an Ethical Public Issue.” Journal of Business Ethics 92.2 (Mar., 2010): 227-249. JSTOR. Web. 9 Nov. 2014

Rowling, J.K.  Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Arthur A. Levine, 2000. Print.

Slavery Now: The Trans-Saharan Slave Trade in the Sudan

By: Lauren Lutz

Living in the United States, it is sometimes difficult to recognize that slavery exists outside of the history of the Americas. The trans-Atlantic chattel slave trade is what is taught about in school, what is seen in films and television, and what is recognized as a collective history within American culture. However, if one can analyze history outside of the Americas, there is a much older chattel slave trade in the world’s history that ran long after the trans-Atlantic slave trade ended. It is important for Americans to acknowledge that slavery is a current international problem that did not end after the U.S. Civil War so that victims in other parts of the world can get the exposure and help they need.

During the time of the Roman Empire, the Romans established a slave trade stretching south from North Africa all the way down to the Sahara and Sub-Saharan Africa. Arabs invaded the North African Roman territory in the 7th and 8th centuries during the Arab Conquests and took over this slave trade. For nearly a 1000 years, Arabs used that slave trade system to take Africans from the Sahara and Sub-Saharan regions and use them for various forms of labor in North Africa. Arabs have notoriously raided African villages and stolen people for domestic service, agricultural work, mineral extraction, military service, industry and commerce, and administration (Alexander 44-9). A country that has been particularly affected by this slave trade is Sudan. Its current status as a country has been highly influenced by the long history of exploitation of its black African people. Not only has this history of raiding villages and enslaving inhabitants caused a great amount of tension between Arabs and black Africans in Sudan, but it also has taken the lives of countless  innocent victims.

In Sudan in the 1980s, there was a rebellion from the African south when the mostly Arab government tried to impose Sharia laws upon the entire country. This caused a civil war, and Arab raids on African villages were unfortunately common. Many young women were abducted, such as Abuk Bak from a small Dinka village (Bak 39-40). An Arab family enslaved her for 10 years until she ran away because of sexual, emotional, and physical abuse. She lost her family, her identity, and her freedom. She was a runaway slave in the year 1997, which is difficult to conceptualize if you are only used to thinking of slavery as a past event that has been resolved (Bak 41-55). She became a refugee after escaping her master. This is a story shared by many other Sudanese people who were abducted and sold into this chattel slave trade.

Currently, South Sudan has gained independence and is attempting to piece together a peaceful government. However, slavery lingers over its culture and people, as its effects are still visible. Many Arabs and black African Sudanese people do not openly acknowledge the existence of the chattel slave trade, so it is a sort of repressed collective history. This attitude towards the slave trade kept it largely unnoticed by the international world until the 1990s.

It is obvious from the past and current history of Sudan that slavery is impacting the lives of many people, such as Abuk Bak. As an American, if issues of modern slavery concern you, it is important to educate yourself so you can understand where it is still a problem. Slavery didn’t disappear after the US Civil War, even in the United States. For example, on the anti-slavery organization End Slavery Now’s website, they post daily headlines about international current events involving slavery. There are about 30 million people enslaved in the world today, and learning more about this problem can spur us to action that could be beneficial for all of them.


Works Cited

Alexander, J. “Islam, archaeology and slavery in Africa.” World Archaeology 33.1 (2001): 44-60. Academic Search Premier. Web. 21 Oct. 2014.

Bak, Abuk. “Beyond Abeeda: Surviving Ten Years of Slavery in Sudan.” Enslaved: Stories of Modern Day Slavery. Ed. Jesse Sage and Liora Kasten. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. 39-60. Print.