I’d never before heard of The Whip by Karen Kondazian until one of my neighbors chose it for our book group selection recently. It is based on the true story of a woman who lived as a man, driving a stagecoach, in the Old West of the 1800’s, though so little is known of her life that it is mostly fiction.
Charley Parkhurst was one of the best, most renowned stagecoach drivers employed by Wells Fargo in the 1800’s, when the job was very dangerous and required great skill (and bravery). When he died in 1879, his employer, colleagues, and even friends were astonished to discover that Charley was actually a woman. Originally named Charlotte, little was known about this Old West character except that she originally came from Rhode Island, was an orphan, and moved out West as a young woman, where she lived out the rest of her life as a man and a well-known stagecoach driver. The rest of Charlotte’s story is imagined in this novel.
Charlotte is orphaned at a young age and brought up in an orphanage in Rhode Island. Though in real life she ran away at age 12, in this fictionalized account, Charlotte grows up alongside a boy named Lee who is like a brother to her. Lee protects her when they are children, but an abusive incident changes him and a new head of the orphanage insists on boys and girls being separated. Charlotte never fits in well with the other girls, but she soon finds a place for herself helping out the black man who takes care of the horses and enjoys the stable work.
Charlotte grows up and lives in a women’s boardinghouse, until she meets someone she falls in love with. Tragedy hits, though, and Charlotte sets off on her own for the West, enduring a long voyage by ship to finally arrive in California. She’s seen ads for stagecoach drivers, so she dresses like a man and attends a try-out for new drivers, where her skills with the horses help her beat out the men there. She is hired by Wells Fargo as a driver, a job that she will continue – and love – for the rest of her life, never giving away her tightly held secret.
This is one of those historical novels that takes a small nugget of real-life fact and builds a fictional story around it, to fill in the missing information. Charlotte/Charley’s life was fascinating in and of itself, and author Kondazian creates an intriguing story and motivation behind her unusual actions. Along the way, she paints a vivid picture of life in California during the Gold Rush years and even more interestingly, the challenging and dangerous life of a stagecoach driver. I read a lot of historical fiction, but rarely covering this period of American history, so I enjoyed being immersed in this era.
It’s an original and captivating story, though not everyone in my book group enjoyed it to the same degree. Some were frustrated that so much of the story was pure fiction, though that makes sense when you realize that little was known about Charley’s past before moving to California, and she closely guarded her private life. Others felt that the writing was too light and superficial, while some of us just went along for the ride and enjoyed the story. It makes sense when you realize that this first novel was written by an actress and screenwriter – several people commented that it felt more like a movie (it would make a great movie!). So, while everyone was intrigued by the story, ratings of the book ranged from 4 to 9 (out of 10). I think if you start this novel recognizing that it is mostly fiction, based on a fascinating real-life person, then you will enjoy this exciting Old West story of a woman who lived her life as a man and became a famous stagecoach driver.
302 pages, Hansen Publishing Group