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What if you were trapped between two cultures?
Life is tough in 1870s Wyoming. But it’s tougher still when you’re a girl who looks Chinese but speaks like an American.
Orphaned as a baby and taken in by an American family, Charity Walker knows this only too well. The mounting tensions between the new Chinese immigrants and the locals in the mining town of Carter see her shunned by both communities.
When Charity’s one friend, Joe, leaves town, she finds herself isolated. However, in his absence, a new friendship with the only other Chinese girl in Carter makes her feel like she finally belongs somewhere.
But, for a lost girl like Charity, finding a place to call home was never going to be that easy. The book opens in 1868 with the protagonist Joe Carter panning for gold to help his impoverished family and to enable them to move away from the mining town in Wyoming in which they find themselves. The descriptive narrative over the next few pages, indeed throughout the book, is so brilliantly and yet subtly told that I could see an image of the scene in my mind and be able to live it seemingly first hand along with Joe. Joe hears a cry and finds a baby, a baby of a China woman. Reluctantly his mother agrees to keeping the child, who is a girl and calls her Charity but the rift and hostility of Martha the mother to this foreign child immediately becomes apparent. Despite his older brother Sam wanting Joe to work down the mine, Joe remains adamant that he wants fresh air and sun and a compromise is reached when he accepts work in a livery stable. As Charity and Joe grow the growing tension between the Chinese workmen and the miners is wonderfully described and one can sense Charity's growing alienation from both communities, made worse when Joe follows his dream to move away.
Dialogue between Sam and Joe. I love the natural way they talk:
‘You know, Joe,’ Sam said. ‘Instead of doin’ whatever it is you do all day, you’re old enough now to be out workin’. After all you’re nearly eleven now. You could be earnin’ fifty or sixty cents a day, and Ma could use the money. With a second mine openin’, they’ll need lads to work the breakers. All you’d have to do is pick out pieces of slate from the coal that goes by on the chute, and at the end of your shift, they’d pay you.’ ‘Oh, yeah – bein’ under the ground all day would be grand. What could be better than bein’ in the dark for ten hours, with coal dust all around, listenin’ to loud machinery and the sound of blastin’? And never seein’ the sun? I’m not gonna do it and you can’t make me.’ Joe’s mouth set in a stubborn line.
Sam shrugged. ‘You’d get used to it. Me, I wouldn’t wanna work out in the sun all day. At least down the mine, you’re working in your own room, you and your partner, and you’re with a group of men you know. And you can bend an elbow with the boys at night. It’s a good life for a man.’
Harris’ research has been impeccable and her clever, skillful use of words transports you back in time to another part of the world and another life. The characters are so finely drawn that it makes the reader feel that they could be recognised walking down the street, whilst the inter-relationships show a thorough knowledge of people and what makes them ‘tick’. I learned a lot about mining, the areas that the book encompasses and livery without feeling I was being taught!
This is a very strong book, sensitively written by a major new name to me in Historical Fiction. It carries an important message for us some 150 years later. In addition it is a very interesting and compelling study of belonging and also not belonging; of looking one thing but being another; of love in all of its forms and hatred for what you are, not who you are. The love between Charity and Joe is beautiful, heartbreaking and so sensitively portrayed that on occasion it brought tears prickling the backs of my eyelids.
Background to the novel: Although Carter Town is a fictional town, it is based on a real town and it depicts the events that took place in that town in the 1870s and early 1880s. The discovery of gold at South Pass in 1867 encouraged many to come to Western Wyoming, but it was the building of America’s first transcontinental railroad that brought most immigrants there. From 1863, Central Pacific began working east on the railroad from Sacramento, California, employing Irish immigrants, Mexican labourers and Civil War veterans to build the track. After two years, when progress was so slow that they’d laid only fifty miles of track, one of the four owners, Crocker, decided that it would be cheaper to bring in Chinese workers from Canton by boat than recruit labourers west of the Mississippi, and on an experimental basis, the company brought in fifty Chinese labourers, experienced in drills and explosives, to level roadbeds, bore tunnels and blast mountainsides.
© June 2016 Diana Milne
About the author:
After graduating in Law in the UK, Liz moved to California where she led a very varied life - from cocktail waitressing on Sunset Strip to CEO of a large Japanese trading company. Upon returning to England, she completed a degree in English and then taught for a number of years before developing her writing career. She is published by Choc Lit.
Her debut novel, THE ROAD BACK, was voted Book of the Year 2012 by US Coffee Time & Romance, and in the same year, EVIE UNDERCOVER was published, first on kindle, and recently in paperback. A BARGAIN STRUCK, published in September 2013, was shortlisted for the RoNA for Best Romantic Historical, and later in the year, THE ART OF DECEPTION, a contemporary novel set in Italy, was published digitally. A WESTERN HEART, a novella set in Wyoming 1880, was published digitally in spring 2014. THE LOST GIRL, her most recent full-length novel, was brought out in 2015.
Liz has a story in each of Choc Lit's anthologies: ANGEL CAKE in Choc Lit Love Match, and CUPCAKE in Kisses & Cupcakes. Each anthology is a collection of short stories by Choc Lit authors, with a recipe accompanying each story.
About the reviewer:
Diana Milne is an avid amateur historian, future best-selling author and is better known as ‘d.arcadian, letterpress seller extraordinaire.’