Dear Nate and Heather and book club friends, This new book will be in every Idaho library and bookstore I'm sure since it features the Boise area, the Salmon River and lots of Idaho history - so here ya go Idaho..
“The Poker Bride”
Non-fiction is hit or miss for me - most of the time the writer just makes it too darn long and too darn boring. “The Poker Bride” by former journalist Christopher Corbett is 200 pages with a couple of pictures. It's packed with plenty of historical trivia but not an overwhelming linear date by date or blow by blow account. This has an actual Wild West story woven into the time period tapestry to keep any reader interested.
Polly Bemis rode down from the mountains of central Idaho on the back of a saddle horse in the summer of 1923 at age 71. Like a tiny Chinese Rip Van Winkle, she had been isolated away from civilization on a ranch along the Salmon River since 1872. “She had never heard a radio or seen a train, an airplane, a motion picture, or electric lights.” According to the newspapers of the day she was an overnight sensation. Her story got more print than the death of President Warren G. Harding or the statewide decline in property values. Although the author admits Polly’s life story has a couple of “variations”, it is a fascinating biography.
As a young child, Polly was purchased by procurers (she called them bandits) from her starving family in rural China and sold as a concubine in Idaho. Hers was the typical story of thousands of young girls shipped to California to live in mining camp brothels or in San Francisco’s Chinatown to service the Chinese men. What was unique about Polly was that she was won in a poker game by Charlie Bemis who married her and took her up into the mountains to live a long life. Most of the girls brought from China died very young from the terrible diseases of prostitution or the hardships of slavery as a concubine in America.
The author Corbett spends several chapters describing the political and social setting of the famous gold rush which spread from California throughout the North West territories during the 1800’s. It’s tempting to list all the things I learned about this time and place but I hesitate to reveal my ignorance. Maybe you didn’t know that Chinese peasants sailed from Hong Kong to California at the very start of the gold rush and many took their stake and returned home. But many more stayed and fear spawned the Chinese Must Go movement of the 1880’s. Or maybe you didn’t know about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which banned all Chinese immigration for ten years. Although the 100,000 Chinamen as they were called only made up 1% of the US population at the time, fear and discrimination ran rampant.
I found “The Poker Bride” to be a fascinating, but not compelling narrative history. Sometimes it’s nice to have a book you can put down.I highly recommend this book if you are interested in the history of the west, the gold rush, or just want to learn something new.