This was a very nice addition to our reading list for Arizona, particularly for a Young Adult audience – the reading level is on the younger end of this group, but the main character is raised in a brothel (though not as a sex worker herself). It’s a historical fiction novel set in Tombstone in 1880, and has some wonderful descriptions of the boom town, including bits about the silver mines, Chinese immigrants, and some of the harsh realities surrounding the few routes to financial security that were available to women at the time.
I am reading my way across the USA–around 5 books set in each state, with an emphasis on those where the setting becomes another character in the book, or where we learn something about the history, geography, and/or people of that state. I’ve been on sabbatical (read “too stressed to write”) for most of this year (#2020sucks), but this book fell in my lap with a bit of a treat to share, so… for the moment, we are in Arizona.
Frankly, I will say that Blood and Silver definitely felt like a debut novel. We’ve talked a number of times about the writing technique of “showing vs telling” the reader, and it’s one that Benson could use some practice with. (Full disclosure – Vali sent me a free Kindle copy of the book to read and review.) The book also felt a bit Pollyanna-ish at times – things worked out, perhaps, a bit too ideally for our heroine. However, the story itself was one I found interesting and I wanted to keep reading to find out what happened, and both of these faults are less problematic given the age of the intended audience. They are also less important for my reading challenge if the setting is well-done, which it is in this book.
China Mary was a real person who lived in Tombstone’s Chinatown (Hoptown) and is buried there. Most of what I was able to access online about her agrees with Benson’s portrayal of her as Hoptown’s Godfather-figure who ran shops, laundries and opium dens, and supplied domestic servants and prostitutes, guaranteeing their honesty while garnering their wages. However, I also found this notice from a local community college about a presentation about China Mary to be given in February 2020 by Li Yang, from the University of Arizona faculty (no indication of whether it occurred or not). The flyer says the legends about China Mary, “cannot be substantiated by historical research. Yang’s presentation will debunk the myth of China Mary and tell the real story of her as well as other Chinese who lived in Tombstone, Arizona during the exclusion period.”
Some readers may remember one of our previous forays into Chinese American historical fiction with Thousand Pieces of Gold by Ruthanne Lum McCunn, which was set in Idaho. The Polly Bemis in McCunn’s book is also a historical figure, and also one whose legend has been romanticized–my sense is that China Mary’s true story may also be a bit different from the popular myths and legends told about her. But China Mary is one of the heroes of this book, and I love that.
Benson’s book is written for a younger audience than McCunn’s, and she’s pretty circumspect when discussing the brothel and the girls, at least about the sex part–the brothel-owner is the main antagonist, getting Carissa’s mother addicted to laudanum (opium) in order to control her. Despite the mature themes, though, Blood and Silver is a very optimistic book, and Tombstone turns out to be a very good place for Carissa.
We also get some really good descriptions of the boom town:
It seemed that the desert town was thrown together from scraps of lumber, and it appeared that any of the buildings could crumble at any time. The saloons were scattered among what seemed like respectable businesses: restaurants, hat shops, law offices, blacksmiths–all places a boomtown needed. San Francisco had a dark, pervasive underbelly that frightened Carissa. Tombstone seemed light and bright, and the songs of Stephen Foster bellowed from nearly every other building. And always in the background was the hack-hack-hack of the miners against those stone walls of the tunnels.
Vali Benson in Blood and Silver
This slap-dash atmosphere makes sense given that the population had grown so quickly. According to Benson’s Author’s Note, “In mid-1879, Tombstone had a population of approximately 250 people. A year later, the population was approaching 5,000 people and on its way to an estimated 15,000 by 1885.”
Overall, I’m glad I added Blood and Silver by Vali Benson to my reading list for Arizona – it was a lovely historical fiction for young adults that gave us a look at some lesser-known aspects of Tombstone. Despite the gravity of the themes, it’s appropriate for teens.
Stay tuned for additional posts: a discussion of writing and historical research with Vali Benson, the author of Blood and Silver, and an excerpt from the novel!