In this debut historical novel, a woman disguises herself as a male stagecoach driver in order to track down the man responsible for the murder of her family.
Inspired by a true story, Kondazian conjures up the legend of Charlotte “Charley” Pankhurst, a 19th century woman who spent much of her life pretending to be a male. Charlotte, who was raised in an orphanage in Boston, falls in love with a runaway slave and bears his child. But a terrible act of cruelty leaves her mourning her family and planning vengeance on the man responsible. After Charlotte learns that her target is headed west, she decides to follow him. The old West is no place for a lone woman, however, so she disguises herself as a man and finds employment as a “whip,” or stagecoach driver. She has a series of adventures as she drives her coach up and down the California territory. She meets an actress named Anna, who later becomes her housekeeper; when Anna falls in love with her, however, Charlotte rebuffs her advances. Charlotte dons her female duds again upon arriving in San Francisco, where she falls for an outlaw named Edmund. However, her plan to take revenge for the death of her family is never far from her mind. The author, an actress, has written a novel about the old West that feels authentic in almost every sweaty detail (“The stagecoach was coming. The whole world was dust and pounding, pounding and dust”). Kondazian’s background in the world of make-believe helps her to convincingly render Charlotte’s transformation. The novel even offers a pansexual take on romance as both Charlotte and her lover seem to derive extra pleasure from the fact that she can be both a woman and a man.
An engaging, authentic depiction of life in Gold Rush–era California.