Mining the frontier of fable

In 'Poker Bride,' Chris Corbett recounts the tale of the Gold Rush and one Chinese among many

  • Roland Park author Christopher Corbett has just published a non-fiction book about Chinese immigration during the Gold Rush, called "The Poker Bride."
Roland Park author Christopher Corbett has just published… (Sun photo by Amy Davis )
February 14, 2010|By Michael Sragow | michael.sragow@baltsun.com | Sun Movie Critic

Imagine "McCabe & Mrs. Miller," "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" and "Deadwood" hand-stitched together and given a novel slant as a mini-epic of Chinese immigrant life. That suggests the polyglot vitality of Baltimore writer Christopher Corbett's new nonfiction book, "The Poker Bride."

An unofficial follow-up to his rollicking frontier saga, "Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of The Pony Express" (2003), "The Poker Bride," a juicy combination of social history and deconstructed myth, pivots on the fact-based Old West legend of Polly Bemis. This Chinese woman debarked in San Francisco and rode horseback in a pack train to the mining camp of Warrens, Idaho, in 1872. She became the concubine of a wealthy Chinese master - and then the life partner of a white gambler from Connecticut, Charlie Bemis, who won her (many say) in a poker game.

Corbett, a veteran freelance journalist and former Associated Press writer and editor, and a professor of English and journalism at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, juggles facts and apocrypha like a master. Readers won't mind that Polly merely hovers in the background for the book's first half.

Corbett uses Bemis' life to flesh out the 1849 California Gold Rush - and vice versa. "The Poker Bride" is about how the Gold Rush kept attracting miners from every land to Idaho and other states for decades. Chinese men flooded into the West to make money for the families they left behind. Poor Chinese families sold their girls into American prostitution. The rags-to-riches-to-rags stories keep the narrative vital, even enthralling. Polly's tale keeps it from becoming grueling.

"She was lucky," Corbett says in his sunny Roland Park home. "And the Chinese put great stock in luck." Polly eventually went to live with Bemis on a remote spot on the Salmon River, married him and outlived him. When she finally wandered down into Grangeville and then Boise after 50 years in the high country, newspapers treated her with affection and respect. They celebrated her as a female Rip Van Winkle, awakening to history. "The Poker Bride" is a literary and historical sleeper - a true surprise, not a snooze.

The borderland of fable
Corbett, who hails from northern Maine, confesses to loving the American West as much as another son of the Pine Tree State, John Ford. "The Poker Bride" has come out simultaneously with a new edition of "Orphans Preferred," timed to the 150th anniversary of the Pony Express. What attracts Corbett to these subjects is what historian Bernard DeVoto called "the borderland of fable." With a mischievous glint in his eye and in his voice, Corbett says, "When you cross the wide Missouri, the stories start to get bigger, and you don't often let the facts get in the way."

Corbett has long been a happy wanderer through Western landscapes. Both the Pony Express and the Poker Bride took hold of his imagination during trips on the Boise-Winnemucca Stage Lines bus that ran from Osoyoos, British Columbia, to Tijuana, Mexico. The story of the Pony Express "was a whopper, like a fishing story, and that fish kept getting bigger and bigger."

Myth enters into "The Poker Bride," too. But at root, it's more contained and sinewy than "Orphans Preferred" - and at its widest reach, it grows even more expansive than the Pony Express. This book is the opposite of a melting-pot fable. Most Chinese of the Gold Rush hung on to their ethnic identity. They were remote by choice, as well as marginalized by racism. But they left a huge imprint on the Western landscape.

"In some ways, it's a small story," says Corbett. "It's not Gettysburg. But Polly provides a way to talk about the Chinese experience. ... You read 19th-century newspapers, and you see it was truly a nightmare to be Chinese on the frontier. The Chinese were treated as figures of fun or rascals up to no good - it was said no chicken was safe from them."

Corbett notes that Chinese in mid-19th century America - or as they were called then, "Chinamen" - were treated as freaks. The best-known ethnic Chinese were impresario P.T. Barnum's "Siamese twins," Chang and Eng. People stood in line half a day to see them. Savvy, literate and confident, Chang and Eng knew how to exploit, for their own good, Barnum's exploitation of their novelty. But they sealed the public image of "the Chinaman" as someone you saw on a midway or in a sideshow.

Mass migration and return
The 1849 Gold Rush was, said Corbett, "the triggering mechanism" for the mass migration of Chinese men. "The news of the Gold Rush reached Hong Kong before it reached Boston. And the Chinese wasted no time getting on the boat. They came instantly." But as Corbett roamed the backcountry and badlands of the West, he found the remnants of their presence "melancholic." He was researching his Pony Express book and walking through Eureka in central Nevada, "a classic boomtown," when the poignancy hit him.

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