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A homespun fictionalized biography of a Chinese pioneer immigrant-woman of rare courage. Born ""Lalu"" into a starving farming family with hopes and even pretensions, the young girl is abducted by a bandit, sold to a brothel in Shanghai, shipped to San Francisco, and bought by ugly, ancient Hong King--an Idaho saloonkeeper who needs an exotic attraction in the mining camp of Warren (1200 Chinese men, 400 white men, and eleven white women). Bewildered, frightened, determined to some day buy her freedom, Lalu--now ""Polly""--is befriended by Chinese packer Jim. But after working as ""walter girl"" at the saloon (her newly acquired ""Git!"" has no effect on excited miners), Polly is rescued not by Jim--he dies suddenly--but by Charlie Bemis, who wins her in a poker game. At first, Polly sees this as just another form of slavery. Then, however, she recognizes Charlie's true love. He becomes her friend, lover, her ""herder""--staking her to a boarding-house. (Chinese are not allowed to own property.) Eventually he even becomes her husband, and Polly is happy, proud, with friends in the community. But she never seems able to conquer the anxiety of one caught between two cultures and two peoples (especially since waves of manic persecution sometimes lead to the lynching of Chinese); she refuses to have children (they'd have to face prejudice). And Polly and Charlie spend the years together at a lovely remote claim by the Salmon River--a claim which Polly secures by digging, in mid-winter, a required 4' x 10' ditch around the property. Finally, then, after rescuing Charlie from a fire and nursing him through a last illness, Polly becomes everyone's most unforgettable character, riding on her first train and seeing her first movie before her death in 1933. McCunn's narration here is a bit museum-dusty, more well-meaning than professional: a frontispiece photograph of the real Polly--tiny, proud, hurt, brave--is in fact more affecting than any of the storytelling. But the factual tale itself is strong material: an intriguing way-station in the growing movement, with Maxine Hong Kingston as standard-bearer, to probe the histories of immigrant Chinese-Americans.

Pub Date: Oct. 31st, 1981
Publisher: Design Enterprises of San Francisco (P.O. Box 14695, San Francisco, CA 94114)