One thing I really like about this job is that I get to discover promising new talent far outside of the world of agents, New York publishers, academics, and establishment book reviewers.
Karen Kondazian’s debut novel, The Whip, is in that category. Her well-written work, based on a true story, displays all the confidence of a seasoned novelist. I didn’t detect one false note.
The Whip was 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, which brought about unforgivable human cruelty.
The destruction of Charlotte’s family is detailed with horrendous details.
She then journeyed to California, dressed as a man, to track the person who instigated the slaughter of her family, someone from the orphanage. that she once considered almost a brother
Charley became a renowned stagecoach driver for Wells Fargo (A Whip). 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).
This true story gives first time author Kondazian, an actress with over 50 television and film credits, much to work with.
Charley’s story begins in Boston in 1812, when, as a newly born baby, she is placed on the steps of an orphanage. Her mother gives a hearty knock on the door and then quickly flees.
Charlotte’s “Charley” adventure has just begun, and what a great adventure it turned out to be. Charlotte often found herself at odds with the powers at The Home (the orphanage), comforted only, from early childhood, by another orphan, years older than she, Lee Colton, who would eventually become her hated nemesis.
Because of her willfulness, she was assigned to live and work in the stalls with the horses, managed by an older black man named Jonas. He treats her with kindness, and imparts much wisdom to her, becoming the closest thing she has had to a father.
Most importantly, he taught her how to deal with horses.
She takes his last name, Parkhurst, after he dies.
Anyone who has lived in the West will recognize the DNA traces of the fact that it was “Go West, young man,” not young woman.
When Charlotte first arrived in Sacramento in 1849 disguised as a man, ”she was taken aback by the dozens of barks, brigs, and schooners along the docks. They created a forest of masts…their cables looped around tree trunks and roots. The street was choked with stagecoaches and wagons, disgorging passengers, the passengers running for the boats. Men of every shape, color, and constitution were there—swearing, spitting, sweating, and shoving.
“Later, Charley would learn their names: Mexicans, Indians, Chinese, Basques, Croats. She noticed that there were no women of any shape or color.”
Author Kondazian got it right, because in 1849, the year Charley landed in Northern California after a harrowing, four month journey through land and sea, there were only 49 women in the entire city of San Francisco out of a population of 48,000.
This fact, often published in local newspapers, became a running joke among my friends in San Francisco who knew the history of this city in which we lived.
It’s easy to see why this beautiful jewel of a city by The Bay went on to become the gay capital of America, if not the world.
The fighting over the few available women for the Euro-American settlers still resonates loudly out West to this very day.
I have often been accused of never meeting a book I didn’t like. But try The Whip on, nevertheless, despite me. I think you will get as caught up in it as I was. This is classic Americana.