Yesterday I finished Thousand Pieces of Gold, by Ruthanne Lum McCunn. I had previously seen the Revisionist Western (1991) film adaptation of the work, which was very similar in tone to Broken Trail (2006). Both the book and the film are historical fiction that center on the life of Polly Bemis, an illegal Chinese immigrant in Warrens, Idaho (current population: 12). Though the film removes some of the drama from the early part of the book, and greatly increase the drama at the end, the main part of both stories is similar.
The book begins in the Qing Empire, and centers around the efforts of Lalu Nathoy’s father to create a good life for his family. The general breakdown of law and order enables criminal gangs to roam the countryside, abducting/purchasing young girls (the distinction is not always clear) and selling them to intermediaries. As with all raw commodities the real profits are in marketing. Lalu, whose original purchase price is quite low, sells for US$3,000 in the 1880s to a Chinese merchant in Idaho.
The middle part of the book, and nearly all of the movie, concern Lalu’s life in Warrens. She quickly takes the English name “Polly,” and in spite of her purchase to a Chinese man, soon begins livingÂ with Charles Bemis. McCunn’s habit of writing around major events, instead of in them, harms this part of the narrative. For instance, chapters will describe events minutes, hours, or even months after important and dramatic events in the narrative. During this part of the narrative, both the book and the movie work best as a rather generic romance.
The end of the book, which takes place after the events of the film, concern Chalres and Polly’s move to a mining claim / homestead on the Salmon River. The location of their home is now a National Historic site, but is inaccessible except by raft, horse, or helicopter. A pet cougar, two seemingly homosexual neighbors, and a freak fire make this part of the narrative the least likely, but seems to be the most historically grounded part of the story. Some people just have interesting lives.
Recently, Ruthanne Lum McCunn wrote a reader’s guide entitled “Reclaiming Polly Bemis: China’s Daughter, Idaho’s Legendary Pioneer” [PDF]. Given that Thousand Pieces of Gold is itself a revisionst western, the revisionist interpretations that can now be found on the internet are rather ironic. McCunn challenges these. She describes her sources, some of whom had known Polly in their youth (and have since past away). McCunn also argues, based on habit, name, and Polly’s recollection of her early life, that she probably was a Daur Mongol, and not ethnically Chinese. The truth may be lost to history.
Thousand Pieces of Gold is an interesting story. The writing is not great. Many of the most interesting parts of Polly’s life are left unexplained. Still, the book was informative, and I am glad I read it.