January 31, 2012 8 Comments
I’d like to say that I’m no expert of the Western genre–in fact, this is the first novel I’ve read based in specifically this location and this time. I am, however, a big fan of historical fiction, though, again, I am not familiar with much of the history of the American West.
A summary of the book:
“The Whip is inspired by the true story of Charlotte “Charley” Parkhurst (1812-1879) who lived most of her extraordinary life as a man in the old west. As a young woman in Rhode Island, she fell in love with a runaway slave and had his child. He was lynched, her baby killed. The destruction of her family drove her west to California, dressed as a man, to track the killer. Charley became a renowned stagecoach driver for Wells Fargo. She killed a famous outlaw, had a secret love affair, and lived with a housekeeper who, unaware of her true sex, fell in love with her. Charley was the first woman to vote in America in 1868 (as a man). Her grave lies in Watsonville, California.”
Note: Spoilers will be in italics. You’ve been warned!
The book begins near the end of the story, when Charley is nearing the end of his life–then flashes back to the very beginning of her life–as an infant. This is a popular timeline to use, but it’s not one that appeals to me, personally. I prefer my stories to be laid out linearly, from beginning to end. I believe here, it wasn’t the best timeline–knowledge of Charley’s struggles with her two identities: Charlotte, and Charley, her losses, her achievements would have made the conclusion of her story, of her life, that much more moving, and her actions before her death more understandable for the reader.
The characters are complex–several, including Lee, Anna, and Edmund remind me of thus: “Pure is impure. Impure is pure. Good is evil. Evil is good.” Or something like that. Lee Colton is, in the beginning of the story, Charlotte’s protector, caretaker, and best friend. He cradles baby Charlotte on her first night in the orphanage, provides her with companionship, and protects her from the abusive headmistress and other children. However, he slowly morphs into a possessive and abusive man, murdering her family, and raping her. What was good, is now evil.
Anna, the sometimes actress, sometimes con woman, sometimes thief, initially takes advantage of Charley for a free ride, and temporary shelter in his home. However, she evolves into Charley’s companion of sorts, as well as his caretaker, morphing his cabin into a home. Impure is pure.
Edmund is a fascinating sort of character, as he moves back and forth along the so-called binary of good and evil. He begins as a gambler, and the first who guesses Charley’s secret, evolves into Charlotte’s secret lover, then into Sugarfoot, the notorious robber (unknowingly to Charley), back to Charlotte’s lover, and back again to Sugarfoot. He alternatively puts Charley at risk for exposure, then provides the sanctuary and intimate companionship Charlotte needs, and risks Charley’s life. Pure is impure. Impure is pure. Good is evil. Evil is good.
Kondazian rarely pulls punches, either. She doesn’t hesitate to show the nitty-gritty details of Charley’s life–for instance, one scene depicts Charley sneaking off to take a piss away from prying eyes. The book shows Charlotte’s struggle to transform into Charley–on her journey west, she does a lot of philosophizing on gender and gender presentation. It’s a refreshing addition to the woman-becomes-a-man-by-dressing-like-one trope in literature, making it less a “trope” and more of the essence of Charlotte’s journey. LBGTQI people may well find it familiar.
One thing that was difficult for me to read was the scenes where Lee Colton sexually assaulted Charlotte. I wondered why novels with a female protagonist always seem to have the female lead sexually assaulted. In every novel with a female protagonist that I have read, off the top of my head, does this. Why? In this book, Charlotte sort-of checks out during her assaults. They don’t factor in her desire for revenge, and after they’re over, they never come up again. Why are they there?
All in all, I loved this book. It’s so good to read about a strong, historical woman–to read about someone like me. Charley Parkhurst is a historical figure, but Kondazian takes this larger-than-life figure and makes her real. Charlotte is not supporting someone else’s enlightenment, nor serves as support for someone else’s (a man’s) journey, but stands on her own, chases after what she wants. She drifts, stumbles along something that she wants, takes it, loses it, and then sets off to reclaim her own life, her own power, and does it all on her own.
The book ended before I was ready. Partly because it was only 280 pages, and partly because of the end-beginning-middle timeline chosen.
If I had to rate this book (and I don’t like rating books–they’re too complex to be reduced to such a simple measure, but some people find them useful, alas.) I would give it a 3.5 out of 5 stars.
Socialize The Whip, the team promoting the book, and the same that offered me a copy of the book, and asked if I would review it, is offering a free copy to one of my readers. (I’m not getting paid to do this, nor did I get paid to review the book. Ah, well. Maybe one day, eh?)
So, if you’d like a free book (who doesn’t?) leave a comment on this post before Friday at 2:00pm EST, and I’ll choose one of you randomly!