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Thousand Pieces of Gold
by Ruthanne Lum McCunn (Dell)

Review by John Gabree

This is the story of an extraordinary human being who began her life as Lalu Nathoy in China in 1853 and ended it as Polly Bemis in Grangeville, Idaho, in 1933. To her father, young Lalu was a precious gift, his "thousand pieces of gold," yet during a famine in northern China in 1871 he sold her to a bandit for two bags of soybeans, so that the rest of his family could survive. In the years that followed, Lalu belonged in succession to a Shanghai Madam, a Pacific slave trader and a Chinese saloonkeeper in Gold Rush country.

Through the hardest of times she courageously preserved her dignity and sense of self. Emancipated at last by a man who won her in a poker game, she ended her days as a homesteader. Fires, gunfights, lynchings -- no difficulty could overcome the spirit of this unique woman. She could dig a bullet from a wound with a crochet hook or calm a cougar with a touch. Her love affair with Charlie Bemis, the man who freed her, is deeply moving.

McCunn 's story seems to have been carefully researched, but this is more a work of imagination than of history. The author has wisely chosen to tell her tale as a novelist would, filling in the historical record with conversations and details of behavior that flesh out her characters. She introduces us to an American about whom previously we have known very little, the immigrant Chinese on the frontier.




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