DISCLOSURE: I was not compensated for this review. I received a copy of the book, which will be given away (see bottom).
There is nothing like being pleasantly surprised by a book! I am not generally a big fan of Westerns, but when I was approached to review The Whip by Karen Kondazian, something about the synopsis made me give it a chance:
The Whip is inspired by the true story of a woman, Charlotte “Charley ” Parkhurst (1812-1879) who lived most of her extraordinary life as a man in the old west. As a young woman in Rhode Island, she fell in love with a runaway slave and had his child. The destruction of her family drove her west to California, dressed as a man, to track the killer.
Charley became a renowned stagecoach driver for Wells Fargo. She killed a famous outlaw, had a secret love affair, and lived with a housekeeper who, unaware of her true sex, fell in love with her. Charley was the first woman to vote in America in 1868 (as a man). Her grave lies in Watsonville, California.
I will go ahead and get this gripe over with first: I truly wish that book synopses would not reveal deaths unless they happen either before the book begins, or within the first chapter. I know the author doesn’t necessarily have the final say over this sort of thing, and it is a personal preference, but it was disappointing that as I read about Charlotte and her fledgling family I knew in the back of my mind that they were going to be murdered, that it was just a matter of when. I understand that it was revealed to explain why Charlotte travels West in the first place, but such a tragic turning point would have packed a greater punch for me if I had not seen it coming, just as it had taken poor Charlotte by surprise.
With that out of the way, let’s talk about Charlotte. There were some liberties taken in the book, but as with all good historical fiction, they worked to enhance the character and make her come to life in a way that readers can connect with. The most remarkable accomplishment of The Whip is the beautiful exploration of the inner struggles of a woman who, thanks to the strange circumstances of her life, has chosen to live out her life as a man. She is by no means butch, and she is not a woman who desires to be a man rather than a woman, but her desire to revenge her family has driven her to disguise herself. There are several occurrences, particularly her love affair, that make it clear that under her now-gruff exterior still beats the heart of a woman, with feminine sensibilities and desires. On the outside, however, Charlotte becomes all man, shooting whiskey with the best of them, swearing a blue streak, and being somewhat nasty at times. She struggles to cope with this transformation because at times she is more Charley than Charlotte and feels more at home in his body. This gives more poignancy to those times when she allows herself, in privacy, to become a woman again. The emotion in these moments feels very real- something as simple as unwinding the tight cloth that binds her breasts becomes heavily symbolic and yet so easy to relate to. How easy it would be to simply crumble under the weight of such a secret, and yet Charlotte more than succeeded, becoming famous for her incredible stagecoach-driving skills and even killing a famous outlaw to protect her passengers without batting an eye.
Along with her turmoil over who she really is, there is a very interesting exploration of what it would be like to be able to switch back and forth between male and female in such a place as the old West, when gender roles were clearly defined and enforced. Although it would not be socially acceptable for her to “come out” as a woman, several characters reveal that Charlotte is not alone in her choice of deception, that unfortunately for a woman to have any real sense of independence in that time and place, she could not be a woman at all. This is no better illustrated than in the character of Anna, an Italian-American who takes refuge, along with her daughter, with Charley, believing her to be a man. Anna is industrious and fierce when it comes to caring for her daughter, but she is ultimately dependent upon men to make a living because there is simply no way (or very few ways) for a woman to “make it” alone during that time.
I will end on this note: any historical fiction has “succeeded”, in my opinion, if after reading it the audience is inspired to do more research on the topic, and are thus left thinking about it long after they have finished the book. That was certainly the case with The Whip, and I expect that it will be the case for most readers. Kondazian writes with incredible sympathy for all of her characters, even the villains, which left me wanting to do some research of my own about Charley Parkhurst and gain a better understanding of her incredible story. This is an excellent debut novel for Karen Kondazian, written with an incredible sensitivity to character (no doubt thanks to her distinguished acting career), and I look forward to seeing more from her in the future.
You might like The Whip if you like: historical fiction, westerns, or women’s studies.
About the Author:
Karen Kondazian is a multi-faceted writer, actress and producer. Her numerous projects and awards highlight Karen as a recognizable figure in the realms of theater, Broadway, film, television, writing and teaching the dramatic arts. In 1979, she won the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Actress in The Rose Tattoo, (in which her work as actor and producer so impressed Tennessee Williams that they became friends and he gave her carte blanche to produce any of his work in his lifetime). Kondazian is the author of the best-selling book “The Actor’s Encyclopedia of Casting Directors,” (the second edition of the book will be released in 2012). The Whip (a historical novel inspired by the true story of Charley Parkhurst) is her debut novel.
Want to read The Whip? One lucky duck will win my very own gently-read copy of this lovely book! Just leave a comment! Had you heard of Charlotte “Charley” Parkhurst before reading this review? What historical fiction have you read that made you want to do more outside research?
A winner will be randomly chosen on Friday, Jan 27 at 12:00 pm PST.