‘THE WHIP’ by Karen Kondazian

[Charlotte M. Liebel Review]

Brilliant and memorable are the lasting impressions made upon reading the final chapter of the debut novel, THE WHIP by Karen Kondazian. It is a novel commemorating a true legend of the Gold Rush Era in the person of a woman who survives the struggles of joblessness by reinventing herself. While the genre of this 19th Century novel is Historical Fiction, often the lines between history and fiction are blurred due to the monumental research of the author.

Charlotte (Charley) Parkhurst was left in a basket at the door of an orphanage in Massachusetts on a cold day of March 1812. On that first night of hunger and crying, and needing the nurturing arms of her mother, the unsympathetic caretaker leaves her in a distant laundry room with no lights. It is the baby’s good fortune that the lonely boy Lee Colton, who is a mere four-year-old child, hides in the shadows to observe. He sees this heartless act and, after the woman leaves, the boy enters the dark room. All that night, he holds and rocks the baby to sleep. For the next four years, the children are inseparable.

Management changes at the orphanage result in harsh disciplines that affect the personalities of the two children over the years. Charlotte (Charley) is removed from the sewing-room after a strap-beating and escorted by Miss Haden to the barn to break her spirit. Instead, she learns to love horses and sleeps next to them to tend to all their needs. Her mentor and surrogate father, the black stable-hand named Jonas, guides Charley through his philosophy of coping with misfortune, making friends, and his faith in God. After a while, she finds her greatest success is caring for one special horse that is the strong-willed Beelzebub. This unruly horse challenges her with fiery eyes and stomps of defiance until each of them learns to respect one another. They bond. This is a touching episode.

Everything Charley needed to grant her desire for independence was learned in the stable. Thus her knowledge about horses grew. At the age of sixteen, the young girl must leave the orphanage without any of the marketable skills she would need to become a genteel bride. Her education was negligible and she lacked tea-room manners and, so it was, that she found work as cook and service maid.

Mysterious events lead to a chance relationship and a heavenly change of circumstances for Charley. The birth of a beloved infant and the gift of a man with the means to support his family in an outlying community, away from small town gossipers, fulfilled all of her dreams. Her joy was short-lived, however, as vigilante menfolk with unconscionable destruction invade their property and snuff out the innocent lives of her black partner and baby. Charley recognized one of the men fleeing from the scene of the murders and it was at that moment that she vowed to pursue the traitor to his end. This horrible event makes the face livid with shock as the pages turn faster with angry tears.

Independence was a gift to many men in the territory but it was unavailable to women in Charley’s lifetime. For her, freedom to work and travel safely was offered through her manly disguise. Charley, who looks like a young boy with short hair, a hat, gloves, and coveralls over boots, applies as a stagecoach driver for Wells Fargo. She must compete with several men who have lined up for this timely job opportunity. Extremely skilled at the whip and handling the team of horses, Charley wins the competition and a complementary trip to San Francisco to even the score with that nameless vigilante. And what a trip.

Charley was by nature shy and maintained a respectful indifference while being admired by her male-peers all the time. In an election year, she cast her ballot as a man and became the first woman to vote. She would never marry again but clandestine engagements sparked her life. Unimaginable feats of bravery saved lives; and gun shooting skills marked a bandit’s death. All these were qualities that men in her circle found admirable.

Observing and imitating a man’s walk, talk, and chewing tobacco helped her conceal her feminine identity and disguise herself with masculine mannerisms. To complete her masquerade, she wrapped her bosom tightly with strips of fabric and was a legendary man of the West for her last thirty years.

Author Karen Kondazian authenticated her writing from notations of actual newspaper commentaries of the 1880s. Notable editorials in her research include a memorial by a son whose father, as a boy, was acquainted with Charley Parkhurst [the man] and listened to tales she told. In particular, Charley reached San Francisco by travel via the Isthmus of Panama. She was buried in Watsonville, a city in Santa Cruz County, California.

The historical novel ‘The Whip’ by Karen Kondazian is a page-turner with drama that is unpredictable. The language and situations are focused and thought provoking. The book and ebook are available at all booksellers at an attractive price.

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