A Fascinating Chinese American Western You Need to Read

Book Review: Thousand Pieces of Gold by Ruthann Lum McCunn

(A revised version of this review was published on News Break. You can see it here!)

Thousand Pieces of Gold is an enthralling work of Chinese American historical fiction. In it, Ruthanne Lum McCunn tells the story of pioneer woman, Polly Bemis, born Lalu Nathoy.

She was a real woman who was born in China and sold by her father to bandits during desperate times. Eventually, she was sold to a Chinese saloon owner in the United States, looking to increase business by using her as an attraction. You read that right, long after slavery was officially abolished, Asians were still sometimes held in involuntary servitude – even by their own people. 

The rest is the story of how she not only survives but finds her way to freedom, love, friendships, and happiness.

Polly is an endearing, plucky heroine who never loses sight of who she is and her desire for true freedom even when it seems impossible. Her romance with Charlie Bemis, the rival saloon owner, is warm and realistic as they work through personal and cultural misunderstandings.

Charlie acts as her “China herder” by looking out for her and defending her against customers’ bad behavior. He is a captivating character who McCunn describes as a “fearless personality” which, “coupled with his skill at shooting, enabled him to maintain order without getting into trouble.”

Charlie loves Polly from the beginning, but at first, he loves her beauty, her vulnerability, and that he can help her. Over time, he learns to love her for who she wants to be and can be on her terms. From there, their relationship deepens into a lifelong spiritual connection. Gradually, the power dynamic shifts, and it is Polly who comes to rescue Charlie from catastrophe.

She laughed, a joyous peal clear as ringing bells. Hearing it, Charlie’s smile grew stronger, deepening into laughter, that became one with Polly’s. And suddenly, within the circle of their laughter, she felt finally, wonderfully free.

From Thousand Pieces of Gold by Ruthanne Lum McCunn

The story is set in Idaho in the late 19th century. It is filled with the romance and fascination of that pioneering period when disputes were often settled with gambling and guns. I love the author’s voice, which tells the story simply, letting events speak for themselves. I discovered the book in the early ’90s when I was still a young adult. The clearness of writing especially appealed to me.

I have re-read this book about every ten years since then. Polly is an inspiring Chinese-American hero. I treasure her optimism, can-do spirit, and how she embraces her new country while also staying true to herself and her roots. I highly recommend the book.

Polly Bemis with her horses, Nellie and Julie, Feb 6, 1910, age 57

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Header photo credit: From the 1990 film adaptation of Thousand Pieces of Gold

2 thoughts on “A Fascinating Chinese American Western You Need to Read

    1. Something I’ve added? You mean doing book reviews on my blog? Yes, I guess so. I am in the midst of reading various Chinese American literature and thought I would review the ones I really like. If I enjoy it, then I tend to fan-girl a bit and look deeper into the background of the story and about the author, so it’s a pleasant, easy sort of post to write. Thanks for reading.

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