What if you were trapped between two cultures?
Life is tough in 1870s Wyoming. But it’s tougher still when you’re a girl who looks Chinese but speaks like an American.
Orphaned as a baby and taken in by an American family, Charity Walker knows this only too well. The mounting tensions between the new Chinese immigrants and the locals in the mining town of Carter see her shunned by both communities.
When Charity’s one friend, Joe, leaves town, she finds herself isolated. However, in his absence, a new friendship with the only other Chinese girl in Carter makes her feel as if she finally belongs somewhere.
But, for a lost girl like Charity, finding a place to call home was never going to be that easy …
THE LOST GIRL is the third historical novel that I’ve set in 19th century Wyoming. However, each of my novels is located is a different physical environment. A BARGAIN STRUCK, set in 1887, tells the story of a second generation homesteader who lives on agricultural land south of the railroad. A WESTERN HEART, set in Wyoming 1880, is located in ranching country north of the railroad. THE LOST GIRL, set in the 1870s and 1880s, is located in the South West of Wyoming, an arid non-agricultural region, but one that is rich in coal.
Background to the novel
Although Carter Town is a fictional town, and the characters within it are fictional, it’s based on a real town and the novel depicts events that took place in that town in the 1870s and early 1880s.
The discovery of gold at South Pass in 1867 encouraged many to come to Western Wyoming, but it was the building of America’s first transcontinental railroad that brought most immigrants there.
In 1863, Central Pacific had begun working east on the railroad from Sacramento, California, employing Irish immigrants, Mexican labourers and Civil War veterans to build the track. After two years, progress had been so slow that they’d laid only fifty miles of track, and one of the four owners, Crocker, decided that it might prove cheaper and more effective to bring in Chinese workers from Canton by boat, rather than recruit labourers west of the Mississippi. On an experimental basis, therefore, the company brought in fifty Chinese labourers, experienced in drills and explosives, to level roadbeds, bore tunnels and blast mountainsides.
Chinese immigrants working on the railroad in the 1860s
Employing them was so successful that six months later, they had almost three thousand Chinese immigrants working on the railroads.
The attraction to the Chinese was that they could earn ten times as much as they could earn in China. It meant that if they were careful, within a few years they could save a lifetime’s fortune to take back home, which many of the immigrants intended to do.
The railroad was finished in 1868, which might have meant an end to the need for any Chinese workers in the area.
However, trains run on coal, and Union Pacific, which constructed the railroad westward from Iowa to meet the Central Pacific line, realised that the blasting skills of the Chinese would be of use in the mining of coal, and when the white miners went on strike in protest at Union Pacific lowering the price they paid the miners for the coal that they’d dug, the company sent in Chinese miners to break the strike.
The whites had to go back to work or lose their jobs and so, full of anger and hate, they returned to the mines. There they were forced to work alongside the Chinese, who’d stayed on after the strike and settled into the town and with them their barbers, their stores, their laundries …
Tension between the Chinese and the white miners was inevitable. This is the background to THE LOST GIRL.
It was Chinese men, however, who settled in the mining towns, not women. There were few Chinese women in SW Wyoming in the 1870s and 1880s, apart from prostitutes.
From 1854, Chinese girls had been shipped into San Francisco expressly to work as prostitutes. They were frequently young girls who’d been kidnapped from villages, purchased from impoverished parents, captured by pirates or given false promises of a marriage. Once in America, they were placed under contract to individual Chinese or sold to a brothel. Girls with bad luck attached to them, would spend their short lives in small rooms called ‘cribs’, with only a bed and a barred window. Few made their way to the wilds of SW Wyoming. Those who did were generally lone prostitutes in small mining camps.
It was while I was exploring the history of SW Wyoming in the 19th century, which I found fascinating, that I started thinking about identity. Suppose you looked 100% Chinese in your face, but had an American accent, wore American clothes, behaved with the openness of an American – what would you be: American or Chinese? And from that moment, Charity was born.