This was the one I was waiting for! This has been the best one by far for Idaho. The characters are real–and not just because many of them are historical figures–multi-faceted, flawed, real human beings. Yes, there is racism and discrimination, but there are also people who connect on a personal level with the main character in spite of her outsider (and at times illegal) status. I think this combination of discrimination and generosity of spirit may be the real Idaho.

I am reading my way across the USA–5 or so books from each state, with an emphasis on books where the setting becomes another character in the book, or where we learn something about the geography, history, and/or people of the state. Right now we are trying to finish up Idaho.

It’s been a long haul, and I feel like we had a hard time getting to the real spirit and people of Idaho. I’d still love to find something more contemporary that gets it right. I’ve got Coeur d’Alene Waters coming up, but the Author’s Note apologizes to the people of Idaho for his portrayal of the police force, so that’s a good indication. If you have any suggestions, please leave a comment!

I’d never heard of Polly Bemis before reading this book, and that’s a shame. She was a real person, and a prominent pioneer woman in her own right in the wilds of Idaho, as well as a subject of popular folklore in the region. There are some discrepancies between how McCunn tells the story and what’s written on the Wikipedia page for Polly Bemis, and I was pleased to see that the page actually addresses that with a section on popular myth versus historical fact.

McCunn’s novel seems to take those debates into account. The Wikipedia page says that Polly Bemis herself denied having been “won in a poker game,” which was a popular legend. McCunn’s novel does have Charlie Bemis win her away from Hong King in a poker game, but only as a last resort to win her freedom–as an alternative to killing the man. Charlie makes it clear to her that he does not feel he owns her. It seems a very clever way to explain both the legend and Polly Bemis’s assertion.

The Wikipedia page also asserts that there is no proof that Polly Bemis ever worked as a prostitute, and to be honest, I wasn’t totally sure from McCunn’s book. She made it clear that Polly became a concubine or mistress to Hong King, and she said that Polly was spending nights with Charlie Bemis, but beyond that it wasn’t made entirely clear how she was earning her keep at the saloon–whether it was just hanging out at the bar and carousing with the men or if she was “servicing” them as well. (A neat little side-step, I suppose.) However, this quote is a little enlightening:

“There are sixteen hundred men in Warrens, twelve hundred Chinese, four hundred or so whites. And there are eleven women. Three are wives, two are widows, and a half dozen are hurdy gurdy girls. But they’re all white. You’ll be the only Chinese woman, an attraction that will bring men, Chinese and white, from miles around.”

So, while McCunn may have been circumspect about coming out and saying it, the numbers themselves (probably taken from census records) are fairly compelling. McCunn does make it clear that Lalu/Polly has been purchased for this purpose, and does include a scene of her first night with Hong King.

She also gives us some glimpses of the Wild West:

“Most of the men in the saloons are prospectors or miners, decent men who spend weeks, sometimes months alone in the hills or gulches and canyons, so when they come into camp, they sometimes act crazy. But they don’t mean any harm. They’re just celebrating or trying to drown their disappointments and fears in drink and gambling.” “Drink, gambling, and me,” she said, fighting back angry tears.

The lawlessness that pervades the Wild West’s folklore is here too:

[Jim] stopped to read a trail marker carved on the smoothed-out trunk of a cottonwood. The characters had warned of robberies by demons and Jim had led the packstring deep into the woods until he found another, safer trail. As they traveled, his eyes searched out more markers warning of assaults, a lynching. “Out here, there is no law,” he had said. “Every man is his own court and his revolver is judge and executioner, especially executioner.”

Most of us don’t often think of Idaho when we think of the Gold Rush, and maybe because of that we don’t often think of Chinese immigrants in Idaho the way we do in California. I noted in my reviews of the Gold Seer trilogy books (for California) much the same observations that Polly and Jim make:

Lalu laughed. “White men mine the rich claims. Chinese mine the ones that have been worked over, Hong King mines the miners, and I mine Hong King.” … “A few years ago, in Virginia City, a man bought a saloon and burned it down. Then he hired two men with a rocker to work his claim while he stood guard with a shotgun. At the end of ten days he’d reclaimed ten thousand dollars in dust that had spilled through the cracks in the floor.”

I hadn’t ever thought about the gold dust that ended up on the floors of those old saloons. This sort of legend sounds like just the kind of story that would get used to justify some of the racial discrimination and hatred that went on–the “cunning” Oriental taking advantage of or “stealing” from hard-working white miners. These days I’d like to think we would simply marvel at the ingenuity rather than placing any sort of blame.

I really loved the way Polly’s story was told–her struggle for her freedom and independence, her being torn between her love and respect for Charlie and still wanting to be her own woman and being on the wrong side of US immigration laws of the time. McCunn also did a great job with the question of how she could be considered a slave after the Civil War:

“You ain’t no slave, honey,” he had said. “They is no slaves in America, not fo’ ten years.” The words should have filled her with joy. Instead, she felt a sense of betrayal as strong and deep and painful as when her father had picked up the bags of seed. For if the black man was right and she was not really a slave, why hadn’t Charlie told her? … “Black man come to saloon tonight. He tell me his people come from Africa. Like me, stolen from village and bring here, but man name Lincoln make war and they free. He free, I free,” she said, her English deteriorating under the strain. “The Civil War was fought to free Negroes.” “You mean law for China people not the same?” Charlie pulled out a chair. “It’s more complicated than that.”

Throughout most of the book there are snatches of Idaho landscape:

She pictured the worn trail they had traveled together. The steep ascent. The broken ridges, dark ravines, and densely wooded gulches. The bleached out bones of horses in purple canyons, the remains of those who fell.

Once she and Charlie leave Warrens for Polly Place, there’s more, including some lovely bits with the Salmon River (sometimes called the River of No Return).

How deceptive the river was. At first, near Warrens, it had been only a faint rustle. Then, gradually, as they descended the gorge, the rustling had become a rushing roar. Now, at the water’s edge, she could see arcs of broken rainbows curving across falls, foam beads glittering like fiery opals, awesome in their colorful beauty. But it was the sound the water made as it crashed against the huge rocks rising dark and treacherous from the Salmon’s depths that amazed Polly the most. A few yards away, a creek, a mere silver streak winding through stands of firs and pines, broadened into shallows, then suddenly narrowed, gushing into the deep, boiling eddies of the Salmon. Across the river, a second, larger creek did the same.

In the green pull out of the map below, you can see the northern/main branch of the Salmon River. On the white map, you can just make out the town of McCall, which is the closest town with access to what’s left of Warrens, which is inside the Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness area. The Polly Bemis House, which is on the US National Register of Historic Places, is now a part of the Polly Bemis Ranch, which is a private, members-only non-profit located within the wilderness area–not really accessible to the general public, but at least it’s being preserved.

By USFS – US Forest Service –, Public Domain,

There aren’t many birds in the book, but there is one mystery bird that Polly refers to as a “fool hen.”

For this, her first attempt to shoot, she had decided on a fool hen, a bird too stupid to fly from danger. She knew the birds’ brownish gray feathers blended so skillfully with the texture and color of bark that they were almost impossible to spot. But she also knew that the cock liked to beat its wings against its breast and that the noise would betray its location.

I thought trying to identify this bird was going to be a fool’s errand, but as soon as I typed “fool hen” into Google I was informed (with close to 9 million hits) that a fool hen was a Spruce Grouse!

There’s also a lovely passage about a thrush, but there are at least 15 types of thrushes in the US, including the American Robin. Many thrushes are known for their beautiful songs, so without a physical description it’s impossible to identify this one. It’s probably one of the more reclusive ones, like the Hermit Thrush, but…

A thrush on a nearby branch began its night song. The soft, low notes rose higher and higher until they became a strong, beautiful melody. And then, without warning, the song ended, leaving a sad, ringing trill that accentuated Polly’s loneliness,

There are meadowlarks (probably Western) and a golden eagle, but also generic owls, woodpeckers, and game birds. Despite the birds mostly being unidentifiable, though, there is plenty of other wildlife (including a cougar that appears to be historically accurate!) from red squirrels to porcupines to mountain sheep to bears.

She knew from the trampled brush and grass, small sunken rocks, and bushes stripped of leaves and berries, that the trail she was following had been made by bears. Large rocks overturned in search of insects, a dead tree trunk clawed wide open in play, and long streaks of plowed up ground where cubs had romped confirmed her suspicions.

There are also some lovely bits about winter and the enforced isolation, mixed with this reference to an odd social group:

She loved the winter. The pure whiteness of the snow. The trouble-free months of isolation from the outside world. The funny, strange activities. Like the Hocum Felta Association whose members each took turns trying to be as funny as possible while the rest of the club attempted to remain poker faced until, finally, someone’s mouth would twitch, issuing short, sharp splutters which eventually exploded into helpless laughter.

It was such an oddly specific reference that I had to look it up. If one Googles it (and then tells the auto-correct that, yes, that really is what one means), it mostly comes up with references to Thousand Pieces of Gold. However, there were links to two Google Books–books whose text has been photocopied into Google–in which the phrase “Hocum Felta club” appears.

For recreation we had our stated meetings in town, where we had our “Hocum Felta” club, which we could change at will into a debating society, mock legislature, mock court, spelling school, reading contest or glee club. (From Reminiscences: Incidents in the Life of a Pioneer in Oregon and Idaho by William Armistead Goulder.)

When the historical info is thrown in this way, especially with no explanation, it is a little jarring. There were occasionally other moments when the characters discussed current events that felt a bit forced. Mostly though, I just enjoyed the mix of historical fiction with lovely landscape.

Polly leaned back against a fallen log, thoughtfully chewing a blade of sour grass. Beneath them thundered the Salmon. Swollen ten, twenty feet above its summer level, it swept along fallen trees, rolling rocks, the last few blocks of unmelted ice. In the distance, a lone buck rubbed its new antlers against a pine tree, scraping off the velvet, polishing. Closer, on the creek bank, a beaver sat, combing its fur with its toe nails. Everything smelled alive, fresh, newly green.

Thousand Pieces of Gold by Ruthanne Lum McCunn was a wonderful addition to our reading list for Idaho! I’m so glad we read this one!