REVIEW: The Whip by Karen Kondazian
Dear Ms. Kondazian:
One of the reasons I was excited to read The Whip is that I lived for quite a while in Santa Cruz County, where some of the novel is set. I was also intrigued by the idea of a fact-based story about Charley Parkhurst, a woman who not only lived for most of her life as a man, but who was one of the most respected “whips,” aka stagecoach drivers, for Wells Fargo. While not a great deal is known about Parkhurst’s life, especially her early life, what is known provides a lot of rich material for any novelist, and certainly there is a great deal of drama in this fictionalized account of Parkhurst’s life. I found some of that drama moving, and there were significant stretches of the story I felt immersed in as a reader, but I ended up feeling ambivalent about both the kind of drama created around Parkhurst and the amount, which for me too often crossed the line into melodrama.
In 1812, Charlotte Parkhurst was left as an infant on the doorstep of the Boston Society for Destitute Children. Her first days at the orphanage were hardly auspicious, as the overworked, uncaring caretaker sees fit to lock the crying infant in a laundry closet at night so she will not keep the other children awake. Were it not for the immediate interest and devoted protection of a four-year old boy named Lee Colton, who rescued Charlotte from the closet and then kept her under his protection for the first four years of her life, Charlotte may not have made it through that first night alone in the closet. The relationship between Lee and Charlotte is somewhat like brother and sister, but the appearance of a new headmistress and the imposition of new rules, including the separation of male and female orphans, jeopardizes Lee’s authoritative protection of Charlotte, and his open defiance of the rules results in the kind of discipline that brings out the bad in Lee, a darkness that never leaves the bond he shares with her.
As Lee and Charlotte grow, their relationship becomes fraught, both with Lee’s conflicted feelings toward his “sister,” and the perceptions of others about the nature of their closeness. Charlotte is much more innocent than Lee, and while she escapes most of the brutality that Lee suffers under the orphanage’s “improvements,” her persistent efforts to spend time playing games with the boys instead of learning the domestic arts eventually results in her banishment to the stables, where the headmistress is certain she will learn humility and a desire to be a “good” girl. Instead, Charlotte discovers her love of horses, and under the wise tutelage of the stable master, Jonas, she gains both skill and the protections of a father-figure, both of which become necessary once Lee’s mixed feelings become dangerous to her and she needs to fashion a life without social, financial, or family connections.
Charlotte lives as a woman for the first four decades of her life or so. During that time, Lee moves in and out of her life, becoming more and more unstable and belligerent, and Charlotte moves from job to job, each more drab than the last, and the sum total causing her to “disappear” from her own life. Until, quite unexpectedly, she meets the local farrier and blacksmith in Providence, Rhode Island, where she is working and living in a women’s boarding house. Byron Williams, who was born into slavery and sent North through the Underground Railroad at 12 by his mother, who also taught him to read and write so he could support himself as a free man, introduces Charlotte to Emerson, and their mutual passion for the Transcendentalist’s ideals is matched by their physical passion for one another and their eventual love. Although their relationship is shunned in Providence, they eventually find happiness and stability on a farm, and the birth of their daughter brings them fulfillment neither ever thought possible.
So when tragedy comes to the farm donning white sheets and masks, and fueled by racism and a personal anger that is definitely not brotherly, Charlotte heads out West to California, where she hopes she will find the master of her misery and exact well-deserved and long-overdue revenge. Instead what Charlotte finds is a new life as Charley Parkhurst, stagecoach driver and Sacramento resident. Although small and slim, Charley manages to pass as a man, although the parts of the narrative told from Charley’s point of view continue to use female pronouns, suggesting that Charley never thought of herself as male. Whether this was the case in real life is not clear, but for the purpose of the book, Charley’s dual identity is necessary because of the various relationships she has during the second half of her life, one of which is as a woman with a local gambler she periodically trysts with in San Francisco, and another as a man with an actress and her daughter who live with Charley as caretakers of a sort. I will not describe this section of the book in much more detail, because it is difficult not to venture into serious spoiler territory, but I will say that this was the most problematic part of the book for me.
Fictionalized biographies are interesting creations, because the choices the author makes for her “characters” are as significant as the real life history on which she draws. In Parkhurst’s case, there are so many gaps in the story that Kondazian invents the majority of the biographical details, incorporating those that are speculated or known alongside the fictional aspects. For example, it is known that Parkhurst was abandoned and raised at an orphanage, but the content of those years is not known. The invention of Lee Colton is interesting and provocative, because it is Lee’s idea to initially disguise Charlotte as a boy so she can stay with him once the orphanage is divided along gender lines once the new headmistress arrives. He is the one who dubs her Charley, and even though her real gender is discovered almost immediately, the ruse sets the stage for the second half of the book and problematizes the relationship with Lee in a way that creates a lot of dramatic attention throughout the novel. Lee is characterized as possessing “anger” that is often seen “showing off its sexual side.” He feels possessive and protective of Charlotte/Charley, but is also attracted to her, and it baffles and angers him that she does not easily submit to those desires.
Lee’s dark ambivalence is later mirrored in Charley’s dualistic experience of herself as both male and female. She is most at home on the stagecoach driving her beloved horses, but experiences some of her happiest moments dressed as a woman and making love with a man who knows her secret:
Charley could sense Edmunds not only made love to Charlotte, but to Charley as well. The vision of Charley on the driver’s box, sweaty, dirty, whipping the six-team, powerful and brave as any man. She imagined it excited him to feel Charley beneath him or on top. As it excited her . . . the freedom to be a man and a woman in the same body – at the same time.
But that dualism can also be extremely difficult, as when Anna, the woman who lives with Charley, wants to make their relationship sexual and Charley can neither satisfy Anna’s desires nor tell her the truth.
And, indeed, this ambivalence, which can be so interesting when it’s explored in terms of the fluidity of gender identity and issues of power, also becomes problematic and ironically constraining when it comes to the novel’s dramatic structure. For example, why is it that Charley can trust her male lover with the truth of who she is but not the woman who claims to love her? And why is it that Charley necessarily thinks of herself as female when she not simply passes as male but seems so embedded in male culture and so infused with male habits and behavior as to be considered male and to be characterized as relishing the freedom of being male? Is there really a gender duality or is it more about conforming to the varying demands of the fictionalized drama? Also, why is it that some people conveniently see through her disguise but not others? Why does no one who could be dangerous to her see through it? And if, as she is told by her doctor at one point, that she is not the only woman living the way she is, that there is “nothing unusual” about her choice, why doesn’t she run into any of these other women? It feels that her secret is alternately urgently well-hidden or not so necessarily hidden depending on the circumstance, and the differences feel more contrived for plot than realistic consistency.
Realism is not necessary for the success of a fictionalized biography such as this one, but believability is, and there are so many coincidences in the book, especially in the second half, that for me that crucial believability became strained to the point of frustration at several crucial points in the story. In some ways it was fun to see all the artifacts and details packed into the book – the historical speculation that Charley was the only woman to vote in the US during her lifetime; myriad locations from Rhode Island to Sacramento to San Francisco to Soquel to Watsonville; Transcendetalism; saloons and chewing tobacco and sound horse knowledge and relevant social issues and events; even the preserved head of Joaquin Murrieta! But in other ways the novel had a kitchen sink feel, and more importantly, a sense that the book could not decide whether it wanted to be a serious, even heartbreaking, examination of prejudice and social identity or an indulgently pulpy historical melodrama. Even the prose shifted from banal to lyrical to purple:
Byrne had heard that old Charley Parkhurst was one of Wells Fargo’s most adept drivers…that he could get his coach along twisting roads in the dead of night as a dog can follow a trail by his nose.
. . .
It was March of 1812, the month when wagon-ruts were filled with cold, dark puddles – the month of mud and suicide in New England.
. . .
She tried to take all this in. That the woman in her had died in anguish and a vengeful man had been born in her place apparently brooked no notice of the universe. Nor had the universe even blinked in the absorption into itself of her tragedy.
And speaking of tragedy, there is a lot of it in this book. During the first half of the book, I felt that the darkness was effective at engaging my emotions and empathy. But the second half, where the tension between Charley’s tragic past and the almost ebullient indulgence of her masculine identity creates some over-the-top melodrama, I felt like The Whip was drawing on a number of stereotypes of life in 19th C America more than constructing a believable tale about a complex and provocatively fascinating character. Consequently, my experience of the book was mixed and while I’m glad I read it, I cannot recommend it without reservations. C+