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This unruly book mixes a wonderful mystery- wrapped story with the larger picture of Chinese immigration into the American West. The central story concerns a young Chinese woman sold by her family in 1872 into indentured prostitution. She turns up as a concubine in Idaho, is said then to have been won by another man in a poker game, and became Polly Bemis, the winner's legal, beloved wife in the remote wilderness of Idaho. Polly emerged into public view only in 1923, a tiny old woman on horseback, her identity and story known only to a few old-timers. Corbett wisely sets Bemis's life into the context of Chinese immigration, gold- country anti-Chinese prejudice, and life in the mining communities and remote fastnesses of Idaho a hundred years ago. The trouble is that Corbett also gives us over and over again every tale about Bemis, many of them conflicting, many more incomplete, and many no doubt apocryphal, clogging the work and making it longer than necessary. We need more of former AP editor and novelist Corbett's (Vacationland) own reflections, less of every one else's surmises and tales. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
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In the 19th-century American West, for a white man to marry a Chinese woman was almost unheard of; to have won her in a poker game was also unusual. Yet here Corbett (journalism, Univ. of Maryland, Baltimore) tells how the Chinese concubine Polly became the bride of Charles Bemis, a saloon keeper who took her to his remote Idaho gold-mining community. Around this story, Corbett gracefully weaves the history of the Chinese in the 19th-century American West, from the arrival of the first "celestials," as they were known, through the anti-Chinese agitation at century's end. He pays particular attention to the importation of girls from southern China and tells just how Polly's story ultimately became known to the world. VERDICT Corbett's intriguing book will appeal to readers interested in the narrative history of the American West and tales of the mining camps. Corbett provides a sound bibliography and refers to specific sources within his narrative, though serious students will prefer works with full editorial apparatus, such as Gunther Barth's Bitter Strength: A History of the Chinese in the United States, 1850-1870. Corbett's accomplished book will engage history buffs and general readers alike. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 10/15/09.]-Stephen H. Peters, Northern Michigan Univ. Lib., Marquette (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
From Booklist, Copyright © American Library Association. Used with permission.
Once the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill launched our national madness, the population of California exploded. Tens of thousands of Chinese, lured by tales of a golden mountain, took passage across the Pacific. Among this massive influx were many young concubines who were expected to serve in the brothels sprouting up near the goldfields. One of them adopted the name of Polly Bemis, after an Idaho saloonkeeper, Charlie Bemis, won her in a poker game and married her. For decades the couple lived on an isolated, self-sufficient farm near the Salmon River in central Idaho. After her husband's death, Polly came down to a nearby town and gradually spoke of her experiences. Journalist Corbett movingly recounts Polly's story, integrating Polly's personal history into the broader picture of the history of the mass immigration of Chinese. As both a personal and social history, this is an admirable book.--Freeman, Jay Copyright 2010 Booklist