Toni Morrison's novel Jazz is inspired by a photograph from James van der Zee's Harlem Book of the Dead. The photo shows a young woman at her funeral and a short description of her death. Shot at a party, she refused to identify her assailant, saying instead that she just wanted to rest and that she'd identify the shooter later. Some speculated she did this intentionally so the shooter could get away, and she died before revealing the name. From this brief and incomplete picture of a real event, Morrison crafted an entire world of characters with a rich, interwoven backstory.
And in some ways, isn't that what all art does? Take the incomplete pictures of reality and try to connect them? Expand the holes of our perceptions in a way that makes them real, even if they aren't--well--"real?"
Like Jazz, Karen Kondazian's novel The Whip begins with a very limited piece of historical information. Charley Parkhurst (1812-1879) was an expert stagecoach driver. Upon his death, it was discovered that he was actually a woman. Little is known about his/her life, and what is known is debated. Born either Mary or Charlene, Charley spent her earlier years in an orphanage, spent some time working in a stable, and moved to California. During this time, Charley lost an eye, earning the moniker "One Eyed Charley." When Charley died of rheumatism and tongue cancer, an examination revealed not only that Charley was biologically a woman, but also that she had given birth at some point. Among her household possessions was a trunk with a baby's dress. It's believed that Charley may have been the first woman to vote in the US, though she did so as a man.
That's it. That's the story. I told it all in one paragraph, and I'm long-winded. So how does Kondazian tell it in nearly 300 pages? By filling in the gaps, merging fact and fiction, combining historical accuracy with human complexity.
Kondazian's version of Charley is a complex, compassionate person who fits neatly into no categories. As a woman, Charlotte leaves the orphanage, falls in love with an ex-slave, lives in a short-lived paradise with him where she bears his child, and loses both her lover and her infant daughter to the only other person in the world she considered a friend. She follows this betrayer west to exact her revenge, which is where she adopts her male persona. Through the rest of the narrative, she battles to find her identity, struggles with forgiveness and regret, and explores the role of friendship.
I have to admit that I'm not big on Westerns, and there were times that this novel seemed to fall into the pacing of the genre--there were some rough transitions between major events, and I sometimes yearned for more complex dialogue. In places there was a bit too much "tell" and not enough "show." The narrator would quickly skim over what seemed like pretty significant events that I would have appreciated more if I'd felt more connected. Again, I think this may be a genre difference: Charley is supposed to be--among other iterations of her identity--a rugged cowboy, and the sometimes gruff tone may be an extension of that.
I was also concerned, early on, that Kondazian's personification of Charley Parkhurst was oversimplifying gender identity. Charley is invariably a "she" to the narrator, and I wondered if that was a bit too presumptuous; would the real Charley have identified that way? But those fears were alleviated as the novel went on. Kondazian ultimately treats Charley's gender identity with care and complexity, demonstrating a character that defied the norms of any gender while occupying the role of both.
This book was a fast read that did a good job of capturing the complications of life. There were times when I was moved to tears (like when Charley loses her family at the hands of extreme racism), laughter (like when Charley's hidden identity gives her the upper-hand in interactions), and deep thought.
Do you want a copy?
If you'd like a copy of The Whip, head over to their Facebook page and mention Balancing Jane. One reader will be chosen to win a copy of the book. The deadline is a week from today: Thursday, January 12 at 5pm.
Compensation Disclosure: I received one copy of The Whip for review and the opportunity to give a copy to a reader. All opinions are my own.